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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series Presents: The 85th Anniversary – “It Happened One Night” (1934)


Feb. 22, 1934, director Frank Capra’s classic romantic, screwball road trip comedy “It Happened One Night” hit theaters. Since it’s release 85 years ago its remained in classic status as one of the ultimate romantic comedies, it still holds Oscar Crown glory and has been considered as the contributor to the alleged demise of undershirt sales in the U.S. 

Based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, known as “Night Bus”. It was a movie that nobody in the early 1930s would have missed, the film begins with its two leads economically humbled and broken: Ellie (Colbert) is cut off from her father’s fortune, Peter (Gable) has lost his job. Their journey across the country mimicked similar ones undergone by millions of Americans at the time of the film’s release who were seeking employment or better living conditions due to the Great Depression. 

It was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, due to the stock market crash of October 1929 and lasted until 1939. It sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors. Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped, causing steep declines in industrial output and employment as failing companies laid off workers. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its lowest point, some 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half the country’s banks had failed. In 1935 the year after “It Happened One Night” was released, Congress passed the Social Security Act, which for the first time provided Americans with unemployment, disability and pensions for old age.

But really who in their right mind would try and make a romantic comedy where the lead actor and lead actress hated each other? Who had no desire to make the movie and just wanted to get it over with? Who in their right mind would ask Depression-era audiences to sympathize with a spoiled heiress? And who in their right mind would predict that such a film would not only become one of Columbia Studio’s biggest hits, but that it would also lay the groundwork and become known as the first film in the screwball comedy genre. Or who would have thought it would be one of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin’s favorite movies. It made Oscar history to become the first film to sweep the “big five” at the 7th Academy Awards. Only two other films in Oscar history pulled off the same feat: “One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest” and “The Silence Of The Lambs”. Capra’s “It Happened One Night” took home: Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Clark Gable’s only Oscar win), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert’s only Oscar win), Best Director (Frank Capra’s first of three Oscar wins) and Best Picture. 

At the Oscars Clark Gable gave the Oscar he won to a child who told Gable he admired it. Gable said it was the winning of the statue that had mattered, not owning it. The child who was then a grown man at the time Gable passed away had returned the Oscar to the Gable family after Gable’s death. Although it has been reported that in 1996 director Steven Spielberg anonymously purchased Clark Gable’s Oscar to protect it from further commercial exploitation. He gave it back to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, commenting that he could think of “no better sanctuary for Clark Gable’s only Oscar than the Motion Picture Academy”.

Clark Gable At the time of release for “It Happened One Night” had already been acting for a number of years. It wasn’t until five years later when Gable starred in one of the greatest motion pictures in history “Gone With The Wind”, which celebrates its 80th Anniversary this year. Gable is a newspaper man who helps Colbert to escape from her father who is bent on preventing her marriage to a young bounder. On their hitch hike from Miami to New York, they fall in love with each other. Neither Gable nor Colbert seem to do any acting in the picture. They are utterly natural and human. They are blessed with lines that do nothing but sparkle. There isn’t a dull line of dialogue, every line is sharply written and there isn’t a single dead character. 

Neither Clark Gable nor Claudette Colbert even wanted to be on set. When Gable showed up for work on the first day of shooting, he reportedly said grimly, “Let’s get this over with”. Claudette Colbert on the other hand complained nearly every day during the making of the film. On the last day of shooting she was quoted telling a friend, “I just finished making the worst picture I’ve ever made”. Claudette Colbert only accepted because Frank Capra promised he would double her salary and she would be done shooting in four weeks. She disliked the film so much that she did not even attend the Oscars; when she won for Best Actress, she was found about to leave on a trip and was rushed to the ceremony, where she made her acceptance speech in a traveling suit.

Colbert may not have seemed to been evenly matched with Gable, but that was the point: they weren’t supposed to be. “It Happened One Night” was a film about how two poorly-matched people who should have known better succumbed to the attraction toward one another. While shooting the “Walls of Jericho” scene where Gable undresses. He had trouble removing his undershirt while keeping his humorous flow going and took too long to remove his shirt. As a result, the undershirt was abandoned altogether. It then carried on and became a trend to not wear an undershirt, which resulted in a large drop in sales for undershirts around the country. Legend has it that in response, some underwear manufacturers tried to sue Columbia Pictures. 

An unusual turn for a romantic comedy, the two protagonists never kiss in the film. “It Happened One Night” is pure delight and there’s not a dull moment in the entire picture. The direction by Frank Capra is excellent and he never lets his picture lag for a moment. It moves along snappily and it is full of amusing situations. It’s got two charming, human, believable lead characters and story.

It’s got everything that defines a great film: big names, superb acting, riotous comedy, sharp screenplay and perfect direction. It is one of the easiest movies to love and Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night”, was a film that defied expectations and its impact and influence is still felt 85 years later. 

•”It Happened One Night” is now available on Blu Ray from the prestigious Criterion Collection.



About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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