It Happened One Night: Why It Matters

Some films are more than mere images captured on celluloid. Some films can be measured by their cultural impact and serve as the benchmark for which all future films are measured. “It Happened One Night” is one of those films. “It Happened One Night” was released in 1934 by Columbia Pictures. Directed by Frank Capra, the film tells the story of a runaway spoiled heiress and the cynical newspaper reporter who agrees to get her back home in exchange for the exclusive story. Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as the mismatched pair, it doesn’t take long for them to run into trouble when their plan falls apart. Penniless and hungry, the duo must rely on each other for survival. As the unlikely partnership blossoms into improbable romance, flawless situational comedy ensues amid an avalanche of sexual tension. The veiled friction between the sexes is a formula which seems routine now but at the time, it had yet to be defined. Technically, the film forms the building blocks for the romantic comedy. But unlike most romantic comedies, the cinematic execution of “It Happened One Night” is also technically brilliant.

More than just a date night staple, some of the greatest films of all time fit into the romantic comedy category. “It Happened One Night” is the most significant of those. It is also the most accomplished. One night in February 1935, “It Happened One Night” became the first film ever to win the “Big Five Academy Awards”. The “Big 5” includes the Oscars for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. In the 92 year history of the Academy Awards, “It Happened One Night” is one of only three films ever to sweep the “Big 5”. The film also marked the first occasion where two acting Oscars were awarded to the same picture. In addition to winners Gable and Colbert (the only ones of their careers), Frank Capra won best director and Robert Riskin took home the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. “It Happened One Night” also beat out an astonishing 11 other films to win best picture including Cecil B. DeMille’s “Cleopatra”.
The Frank Capra masterpiece was a beautifully produced work and it still holds up today. However, nobody could have foreseen its colossal cultural impact or prolonged popularity. It is the definition of a landmark film but by all accounts, it was not destined for commercial stardom.

The film, “It Happened One Night”, was derived from a 1933 magazine novella by Samuel Hopkins Adams. At the time, Adams was primarily known as an investigative journalist. The 33 year old Clark Gable had yet to achieve his future megastar status. Having being rented to Columbia Studios from MGM, he was less than enthusiastic about the project. On the first day of shooting, Gable was overheard to quip, “Let’s get this over with”. Claudette Colbert was at best the studio’s fifth choice for the female lead and turned the role down at least once. After the film wrapped, Capra was informed that Colbert publicly told her friends, “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world”. However, the picture succeeded despite low expectations.

“It Happened One Night” was the fifth highest grossing film of 1934. One reason why the picture was both not expected to succeed and outrageously successful was because it was the first of its kind. Being as such, the enormous positive public reaction could never have been anticipated. That, along with the outstanding performances and direction combined to produce the first film to ever sweep the “Big 5”. Not bad for a little movie that no one wanted to be in, adapted from a short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams called “Night Bus”.

This improbable film introduced a new dynamic for moviegoers. Not only did it influence the form and operation of the motion picture industry, it was an archetype. It set standards, created trends and shaped new perceptions. For example, in one historic scene, a bare chest Clark Gable is shown alone with his female costar, an unthinkable move for 1934. Within the year, it was purported that undershirt sales in the United States declined 40 to 50 percent.

Another aspect of the film that was considered controversial for the time was the fact that Claudette Colbert’s character, a single woman, was traveling by bus. The year after the film’s release, there was a massive 43 percent increase in women bus travelers. To cement the cultural impact of the film, it is rumored that Clark Gable’s character served as inspiration for Bugs Bunny! Simply put, this is an important film. Not only for the tremendous finished product and its cultural significance, but because it helped usher in a new era of American cinema.

Made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, “It Happened One Night” was part of the initial cycle of films to be subjected to the infamous Hays Production code. In an effort to accommodate the new “standards”, filmmakers had to change the way movies would be viewed. This lead to a new genre of film: “Screwball Comedy”.

To account for the new restrictions, innuendo and suggestion were incorporated to compensate for a lack of sexual content. Overt affection was no longer permissible onscreen .This meant that romantic themes had to be conveyed differently while the insinuation remained the same. These themes were expressed through whimsical characters, eccentric behaviors and satirical narratives. Thanks in part to the Hays code, “It Happened One Night” paved the way for a new type of cinematic love story. Film scholar Andrew Sarris defined the new genre as “sex comedy without the sex.”
Screwball comedy is romantic pursuit via tribulation. It works because it is dictated by inference and circumstance. It is funny because of situational presumption but the stage must be set and the groundwork must be laid.

These are the characteristics that encapsulate “It Happened One Night”. It is also the formula which led to the genre we recognize today as the romantic comedy.
Rom-Coms are big business in today’s market. In the last 25 years, they have grossed nearly $10 billion at North American box offices. But some purists argue that the evolution has adversely affected the comedy itself. The contention is that modern day films rely too heavily on vulgarity and shock value for cheap laughs. Oppositely, comedies of Hollywood’s golden age were great because they had to be. They had to actually rely on comedy to be funny. There is no better example of this than the screwball comedy and there is no better example of the screwball comedy than “It Happened One Night”.

With a score of 98% from Rotten Tomatoes, “It Happened One Night” is the quintessential timeless classic. One that film historian Peter Bradshaw states, “Survives triumphantly because of its wit, charm, [and] romantic idealism”. It has also shaped the approach and attitudes of cinema for the last 86 years.

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