Sunday, March 31, 2013


The amazing success of “It Happened One Night” almost never happened. A carousel of A-list actors passed on the project for such reasons as the script was too weak. Critics gave the finished product a tepid reception. And upon its initial release, it didn’t exactly set the box office ablaze.

However, it proved to be the little screwball comedy that could, eventually raking in the Benjamins, winning over fans like Hitler and Stalin and sweeping the Academy A
wards with wins for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director and, of course, Best Picture for 1934. This feat would not be repeated by another film until 1975’s “One Flew o
ver the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But perhaps even more extraordinary is the film’s enduring influence on the romantic comedy genre, establishing a formula that would be copied over and over, but never replicated.

Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, “It Happened One Night” is completely his discovery, having found the short story in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine that he read in a doctor’s office waiting room. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (no relation to Stephen Colbert, as far as I can tell) later signed on to star. However, Colbert dragged her feet in finalizing the deal, demanding that her salary be doubled to $50,000 and that the shoot wrap in four weeks so as not to conflict with a scheduled vacation. Despite Capra meeting these demands, Colbert still complained everyday on set, capping off her grumbles by remarking to a friend on the final day of shooting that “I’ve just finished the worst picture I’ve ever made in my life.”

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert size each other up in "It Happened One Night"
In the film, Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a stubborn and spoiled socialite whose specialty appears to be throwing tantrums. One such tantrum pushes her to go on the lamb from her wealthy father in protest of his disapproval regarding Ellie’s recent marriage to a fame-seeking aviator. In retrospect, perhaps Capra put up with Colbert’s on-set complaints because it probably translated into raising the authenticity of her performance. Furthermore, I suspect that as a director, Capra became shrewd enough to observe that letting a bratty dame run amok played to Clark Gable’s acting strengths, bringing out those rogue and rakish Rhett Butler qualities that made him such a star.

And it paid off handsomely. The chemistry between Colbert’s headstrong Ellie and Gable’s wisecracking reporter Peter Warne, is undeniably magnetic in its comedic and romantic appeal. The weight of the film rested on their performances, and they deserve a large slice of the credit for the success of “It Happened One Night.” Together, they elevated potentially ordinary material into a parade of classic cinematic moments, which continue to endure nearly 80 years later.

Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable a thing or two about hitchhiking.
Take, for example, the now famous hitchhiking scene where Peter teaches Ellie the distinguished art of hailing a passerby. After Peter’s thumb repeatedly fails to do the trick, Ellie takes a turn at bat, hiking up her skirt to flash some upper leg, which convinces the very next motorist to come to a halting screech. In the wake of this success, Ellie turns toward a shocked Peter and gloats, “I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.”
Interestingly, Colbert initially refused to reveal her leg in the hitchhiking scene, causing Capra to consult with the casting director to bring in a chorus girl who could double as Colbert’s leg. Rumor has it that upon seeing the substitute gam, Colbert angrily demanded, “Get her out of here. I'll do it. That's not my leg!”

Another highlight from the hitchhiking scene stems from a moment when Clark Gable cleans off a dirty carrot and subsequently begins to loudly gnaw away at it as he continues jabbering on. Apparently, legendary animator Friz Freleng was inspired by the way Gable could mulch a carrot and still deliver dialogue in rapid-fire fashion that he borrowed the tactic in developing Bugs Bunny’s signature carrot-consuming style. I guess when you think about it, Clark Gable’s famous onscreen characters and Bugs Bunny share some similar traits: They’re independent, wisecracking personalities who act indifferent to the situation around them, but reluctantly do the right thing in the end.

Over the years, a myriad of romantic comedies have borrowed from the blueprint set forth by “It Happened One Night.” But despite the re-occurrences of the tropes and trends that emanate from it, this film is still a delight to watch. The script’s humor and romance have not grown stale. There is not a weak link in the cast. And given that it is the only film in it’s category to sweep the Oscars, it could be successfully debated that this is the greatest romantic comedy ever made. And to think, it all happened one night.

Favorite Line: There are several snappy and amusing lines in this film that made choosing a favorite somewhat of a toss-up. But perhaps my favorite line emerges when Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert check into a motel where Gable registers them as a husband-and-wife couple. After learning this fact from the motel manager, Colbert sarcastically confronts Gable, informing him that, “I just had the unpleasant sensation of hearing you referred to as my husband.”

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