A runaway heiress meets a poor but charming newspaper reporter while she's on the lam, antipathy turns to love, and they encounter an assortment of oddball characters. It's the ideal premise for a screwball comedy, and has been the basis for many of them. But none did it better than the original, It Happened One Night (1934), the film that's credited with inventing the genre.
The movie is also often credited with establishing Clark Gable's star persona. He was already on the rise at MGM, where his sex appeal was being exploited in a series of roles as gangsters and gigolos. But he was tiring of such casting, which ironically led to the clash with studio head Louis B. Mayer that resulted in his being punished with a loan to Columbia to make It Happened One Night. Director Frank Capra brought out the real Gable in his performance, establishing the breezy, wise-cracking but self-assured common man he would play for the rest of his career.
Claudette Colbert's legs and Clark Gable's chest were the sensations of It Happened One Night. In the motel room scene, Gable demonstrates how a man undresses. When he took off his shirt, he wore no undershirt. Capra explained that the reason for this was that there was no way Gable could take off his undershirt gracefully, but once audiences saw Gable's naked torso, sales of men's undershirts plummeted. The rest of Gable's simple wardrobe -- Norfolk jacket, v-neck sweater, and trench coat -- also became a men's fashion fad.
The reviews for It Happened One Night were excellent, but no one really expected much from the film. After a slow opening, it received great word-of-mouth, and the film picked up steam at the box office. James Harvey, in his book Romantic Comedy In Hollywood, believes that the film succeeded because the couple transcended their stock characters. "There was some kind of new energy in their style: slangy, combative, humorous, unsentimental - and powerfully romantic. Audiences were bowled over by it."
At Oscar® time, It Happened One Night surprised the industry when it was nominated in all five major categories, and stunned everyone when it won them all: Best Actor, Actress, Picture, Director, and Screenplay. It was the first-ever sweep of the awards, a feat that would not be repeated for another 40 years, until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, which shows you something about the changing taste of moviegoers.
> Director Frank Capra often said that the making of It Happened One Night would have made a pretty good screwball comedy in itself. Consider the elements: two irascible studio bosses, an impossibly fast schedule, a couple of spoiled stars who didn't want to make the picture and are hostile to the harried director - yet somehow they manage to produce an enduring classic.
> To fulfill MGM's obligation to loan-out a star to Columbia, Capra first asked for Myrna Loy as the female lead. She took one look at the script and turned it down. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, then tried to borrow Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett, Margaret Sullavan, Carole Lombard and Bette Davis from various studios, only to be turned down by each of them. Cohn also suggested Loretta Young, who had starred in Capra's Platinum Blonde (1931), but the director wasn't interested.
> One reason many name actresses turned down the chance to star in It Happened One Night was because of Columbia Pictures, which at the time was considered only one notch above "Poverty Row" studios.
> Luckily, Columbia had a major asset in Capra, who had been nominated for an Academy Award for Lady for a Day (1933). Capra and writer Robert Riskin had adapted and renamed a magazine story called "Night Bus," and Cohn had arranged to borrow Robert Montgomery from MGM for the lead in the newly named It Happened One Night. But Montgomery balked, saying there were already "too many bus pictures."
> Instead, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer made Cohn an offer he couldn't refuse. "I got an actor here who's being a bad boy," Mayer reportedly told Cohn. "I'd like to spank him." The bad boy was Clark Gable, who was becoming an important star, and flexing his muscles. He told Mayer he wouldn't play any more gigolo roles, and he wanted a raise. Mayer would punish him by exiling him to Siberia on Poverty Row. Gable arrived for his first meeting with Capra drunk, rude, and angry. In spite of this inauspicious beginning, Capra and Gable eventually became friends. Once Gable read the script, he realized the character was a man very like himself, and he enjoyed making It Happened One Night.
> Claudette Colbert, under contract to Paramount, had four weeks free, but she was also a hard sell. She'd made her first film, For the Love of Mike (1927), with Capra directing, and it had been a disaster, so she was not excited about repeating the experience. What did excite her, however, was the prospect of making $50,000 for four weeks of work, since her Paramount salary was $25,000 per film. So she willingly agreed to do it, but, at the same time, she gave Capra a hard time.
> Although Colbert had gladly disrobed for DeMille in The Sign of the Cross (1932), she refused to be shown taking off her clothes in the motel room sequence in It Happened One Night. No matter. Draping her unmentionables over the "walls of Jericho" made for a sexier scene anyway. More problematic was the hitchhiking scene. Colbert didn't want to pull up her skirt and flash her legs. So Capra hired a chorus girl, intending to have her legs stand in for Colbert's in closeup. Colbert saw the girl posing, and said "get her out of here, I'll do it - that's not my leg!"
> After shooting wrapped, Colbert told friends, "I've just finished the worst picture in the world!"
> According to Frank Capra in an interview with Richard Schickel for The Men Who Made the Movies: "We made the picture really quickly - four weeks. We stumbled through it, we laughed our way through it. And this goes to show you how much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time means in show business: how sometimes no preparation at all is better than all the preparation in the world; and sometimes you need great preparation, but you can never outguess this thing called creativity. It happens in the strangest places and under the strangest of circumstances. I didn't much care for the picture, yet it turned out to be It Happened One Night."
> It Happened One Night is the film that established Frank Capra's reputation as one of the screen's greatest directors. He had been trying to raise his stock with a series of ambitious projects at Columbia Pictures, none of which made him a sought-after talent. This film's unexpected success did the trick. It also made him one of the few Hollywood directors whose name was recognized by the public.
> Capra (1897-1991) was born in Palermo, Sicily, and moved with his parents to California at age six. After earning a degree in chemical engineering, he failed to find work in that field and drifted into a series of odd jobs. He earned $75 for directing his first film, a one-reel adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling yarn. He continued in films as a gag writer for silent comedy pioneers Hal Roach and Mack Sennett and later graduated to become a writer and director for comic actor Harry Langdon.
> Capra eventually settled at Columbia, a minor studio that would earn status as one of the "majors" largely through Capra's efforts. This versatile filmmaker brought his own style to everything from romantic comedies to soap operas to murder mysteries. His reputation was sealed by It Happened One Night (1934), which instantly emerged as a classic screwball comedy and was the first movie to win Oscars® in all the top categories including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Clark Gable) and Actress (Claudette Colbert). Capra also won Oscars® for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can't Take It With You (1938), his second winner as Best Picture.
> Capra's other outstanding works include a spectacular adaptation of Lost Horizon (1937); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which many consider his masterpiece; and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), a rollicking screen version of Broadway's black comedy. After World War II, during which Capra created several outstanding documentaries for the "Why We Fight" series, he returned to create It's a Wonderful Life (1946). This film, about a man (James Stewart) who discovers his life is not a failure after all, was not a box-office success in its day but has since become a Christmas classic and one of the world's most-loved movies.
> Working only intermittently after 1950, Capra finished out his career with the comedies A Hole in the Head (1959), starring Frank Sinatra and Eleanor Parker; and Pocketful of Miracles (1961), starring Glenn Ford and Bette Davis.
A newspaperman tracks a runaway heiress on a madcap cross-country tour.
A divorced couple keeps getting mixed up in each other's love lives.
An unscrupulous editor plots to keep his star reporter-and ex-wife-from re-marrying.
Tabloid reporters crash a society marriage.
To finance her husband's career, a married woman courts an eccentric millionaire.