Everyone loves an underdog; especially when that underdog wins five academy awards (grand slam). With It Happened One Night, Frank Capra brought the screwball comedy to mainstream America, and it wasn’t easy. After purchasing the rights to a short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams titled Night Bus, the great director sought out to make a romantic comedy, only to find no one else shared his enthusiasm. At the time, Columbia Pictures was anything but glamorous. In fact, it would be safe to bet that, before It Happened One Night, Columbia had no chance of producing a best picture. The actors themselves didn’t even want to make the film. Clark Gable, who played the down and out reporter Peter Warne, supposedly gave Capra an ultimatum before filming, stating he would quit if it wasn’t working out. Further, Claudette Colbert, who played heiress Ellie Andrews, demanded she received twice her usual paycheck, as well as a production schedule no longer than four weeks. Like the spoiled brat she portrayed in the film, Claudette received her demands, and the film was completed at light speed.
Even after the film was completed, support was hard to find. Claudette continued to disavow her experience by claiming it the worst film she’d ever made. Thankfully, the box office spoke for itself, as it became a huge hit. It’s hard to assuredly say this was the first screwball romantic comedy, but it was, without a doubt, the first to reach such a massive audience. It’s hard to imagine this as new, as screwball has since become cliche, but there was a time when its quick paced dialogue, action and plot that moved at a melodramatic pace, and sexually toned quips were unlike anything else. For example, Howard Hawks would later achieve massive popularity with similar screwball comedies. That’s right, Frank Capra did what Hawks did with Bringing Up Baby, only four years earlier.
Like most great moments in cinema, restraints in the process led to incredible artistic advancements. For example, the four week time constraint led to the film’s honest simplicity, as well as its quick pace. Mr. Capra didn’t have endless resources, as I said, Columbia wasn’t the most glamorous, but he did have incredible vision. Most directors would’ve cast a comedic actor in the role of Peter, instead of the macho Gable. Further, Claudette’s steep demands would’ve sent the average director looking for the next best option. It all came down to Capra’s conviction to make the picture he envisioned. As a result, Claudette’s real life entitlement lead to an authentic portrayal of a spoiled heiress, and Gable’s macho sensibilities made his sexually focused remarks anything but cheesy. To be fair, Gable did have a good time making the film, he just didn’t imagine it would be such a success.
This film is undoubtedly important. Without it, a wealth of screwball comedies may never have happened. It also made Frank Capra, as well as Columbia Pictures, serious players in Hollywood. But, after all these years, is the film still as charming and enjoyable for a modern audience? I would argue, yes. It’s funny, short, sweet, and romantic. In a world where Hollywood is no longer synonymous with glamor, it’s a treat to see Gable and Claudette race through rural New York while maintaining their perfect hair and makeup. Also, the sexuality of the film is everywhere. Completed just before the MPAA started saying no, It Happened One Night lets the sexual tension between the protagonists be known from the start, as the kick of a moving bus sends Ellie onto the lap of Peter. There’s even a scene where the unemployed newspaper reporter strips down to his bare chest, all in the presence of a curious Ellie.
The story is simple, making it accessible to everyone, yet it’s form and content make it worthy of highbrow status. Capra was a master; it’s apparent in many scenes. For instance, a montage of newspapers reporting Ellie’s return is hypnotizing and beautiful. Keep in mind, this was seven years before Orson Welles used similar techniques to show the passage of time in Citizen Kane. Watch this movie.