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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. 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.
In the early 1930s, Columbia Pictures was considered a "Poverty Row" studio, making cheap B-movies. 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 producer Harry 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.
Among the stars who had turned down the female lead in It Happened One Night were Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett and Margaret Sullavan. 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 De Mille 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 close-up. 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!"
Colbert's legs and Gable's chest were the sensations of the film. 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. Thereafter, Gable wore a trench coat in most of his films, considering it his lucky garment.
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). Claudette Colbert was about to depart on a train from New York when she was informed that she'd won. She dashed to the ceremony, dressed in a traveling suit, accepted the award, and dashed back to the train, which had been held for her.
Producer: Harry Cohn
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin (based on the story, "Night Bus," by Samuel Hopkins Adams)
Editor: Gene Havlick
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Costume Design: Robert Kalloch
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Music: Louis Silvers
Principal Cast: Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews), Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Roscoe Karns (Oscar Shapeley), Henry Wadsworth (Drunk Boy), Claire McDowell (Mother), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Alan Hale (Danker).
BW-106m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri