by Paul Batters
‘A film about the making of ‘It Happened One Night’ would have been much funnier than the picture itself’ Frank Capra, Director
In Academy Award history, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) stands tall and is part of cinema folklore. It is one of those films that, as legend has it, simply shouldn’t have happened. No one at the time guessed that it would be not only the biggest hit of 1934 but stand the test of time as one of cinema’s best comedies. The critics weren’t as scathing as is often reported but they weren’t exactly over the moon about it on its’ initial release. The cast and crew never dreamed it would be anything special either. As Peter Van Gelder in ‘Off Screen, On Screen’ states, it was the public that showed good taste. Capra’s gem would also be one of the pioneering films of screwball comedy, spark all sorts of fashion trends and even inspire the birth of one of animation’s most loved and enduring cartoon characters.
Perhaps one of Gable’s lines in the film sums up why it was such a success, when he says to Colbert’s character that it’s ‘a simple story for simple people’. The story sounds simple enough. A rich and spoiled heiress, Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert), marries an opportunist named King Westley against her father’s will. The father arranges to have the marriage annulled but his daughter escapes her father and takes a bus from Miami to reach her new husband in New York. On the bus she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who eventually recognises her and makes an offer – he’ll help Ellen get to New York but she must give him the whole story or he gives her up to her father. Ellen agrees but what follows is not what either expected. They fall in love. However, as always – love is not so simple.
Filmmaking is not so simple either and a number of important factors combined to make the film such a success. Susan King in the L.A Times mentions an interesting quote in her review of the film:
‘Capra told Richard Schickel in “The Men Who Made the Movies“: “We made the picture really quickly — four weeks. We stumbled through, 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.”’
One of its’ most incredible achievements occurred at the Academy Awards ceremony on February 27, 1935 at the Biltmore Hotel. Here, the industry having finally caught on rewarded the film for what the public already knew. It Happened One Night would win the five major Awards – Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film. The film’s Academy Award success has become a benchmark and film fans, critics and punters still wonder each year if any film will achieve the same success.
Audiences loved it. It’s worth having a look at each category in reference to the film and discovering how It Happened One Night, just happened to become one of cinema’s great classic films.
Best Actress – Claudette Colbert
The role of Ellen Andrews was reportedly knocked back by a bevy of actresses including Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan and Myrna Loy, who would later say ‘they sent me the worst script ever, completely different from the film. But there were also actresses who would have played the part. Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn had suggested Loretta Young but Capra rejected this. Bette Davis actually wanted the role but Warner Bros. refused her, perhaps as punishment for her pushing to star in Of Human Bondage at RKO. Carole Lombard was interested but was already involved in another project.
Colbert was another Harry Cohn suggestion, which Capra never imagined would work. Colbert had worked with Capra back in 1927 and vowed never to do so again. Additionally, she was a star at Paramount and appearing in a B-Picture studio like Columbia was unheard of. The now oft-told story recounts how Colbert made a huge demand for $50,000 and would only commit to the four-week shoot. Incredibly, Cohn agreed.
According to Joseph McBride in his autobiography of Capra, Colbert fit the role perfectly. The director believed that Colbert had the best figure in Hollywood and channelled her reticence and combativeness on the set to his advantage. Colbert certainly did not endear herself to the cast, with Capra’s cinematographer, Joe Walker resenting her ‘angry sulking’. But this works in the opening scene, when as Ellen she overturns a tray and her later bristling when Ellen reveals her love for Peter to her father. Despite Colbert’s difficulties on the set, she is wonderful in the role and her performance was called ‘lively and engaging’ by the New York Times. Her talent for comedy became apparent and her career would re-ignite, starring in a series of successful comedies throughout the 1930s.
Yet when she completed the film, Colbert got away quick to join friends in a holiday and exclaimed ‘I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world’.
Colbert was genuinely stunned when she won the Award for Best Actress. Convinced she would never win it, she was boarding a train for New York, when informed she would be receiving the Award. Somehow the train was delayed and she made it to accept the Award. She seems to have been quite emotional upon accepting and added that she owed her award to Frank Capra.
Best Actor – Clark Gable
How Gable ended up in Capra’s film is also part of film folklore. It wasn’t strictly a form of punishment handed down from Mayer for Gable’s apparent complaining of poor roles, although this was part of the reason. Originally, Capra wanted Robert Montgomery but Mayer rejected this, as he wanted to use Montgomery in his own ‘bus picture’. Gable was Capra’s next choice and he got his wish. At that time, Gable was not yet movie royalty and found himself often being cast as the ‘heavy’ or in ‘gigolo’ roles. However, he was not impressed being sent to Columbia to take a role in a B-picture. And he made this known to Capra by being belligerent at first and even turning up drunk. In addition, he had been quite ill before filming which didn’t add to his demeanour.
Like Colbert, Gable never dreamed he would win the Award for Best Actor. He scoffed at the idea and was humbled when he did receive it, stating “There are too many good actors in this business. But I feel as happy as a kid and a little foolish they picked me”. His ability to loosen up, feel natural and discover his own rhythms and comedic timing, allowed Gable to deliver an excellent performance, which stands tall in film history.
Best Screenplay – Robert Riskin
Riskin would be a long time collaborator with Frank Capra, despite there being some animosity over creative ownership. Adapted from Samuel Hopkins Adams’ story Night Bus, it was a story, which no one was particularly keen on filming and the crew initially just saw the film as a job that they needed to get through. Riskin himself, instead of Capra, pitched the film to Cohn at Columbia, which perhaps sealed the deal.
Both MGM and Universal had produced their own ‘bus pictures’ and they had not fared particularly well. Riskin, however, added his own touches to the script, which heightened the comedy and helped drive the story forward with a naturalness that audiences loved. Most importantly Riskin tapped into the key themes that the audience of 1934 Depression-ravaged America understood and found appealing. To quote Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride:
‘ The appeal of the film…was the profoundly satisfying and encouraging spectacle of the proletarian hero humbling, satisfying and finally winning over the ‘spoiled brat’ heiress, a story that not only provided a fantasy of upward mobility, both sexual and economic but…represented the leveling of class barriers in the Depression’
Riskin did this a number of ways in the script. He drew on one of his early poems ‘A Dollar Ninety Three’, which was a satirical look at trying to enjoy a romantic holiday on an empty pocket. As a result, the comedy works as the audience watches the two, especially Ellen Andrews, trying to get by on very little. How would that have resonated with audiences during the Depression? Peter’s integrity, at a time of desperation, is the perfect indicator of his love for Ellen. When meeting her father over a ‘financial matter’, Peter only wants the $39.60 he had to spend on getting Ellen home. Her father is astounded and sees this as a sign of true love.
Riskin and Capra both played up class differences but Riskin was also careful to not completely demonize the rich. Walter Connolly’s role is certainly a sympathetic one, who can see through King Westley as an opportunist.
Riskin’s dialogue is snappy, funny and at times risqué without seeming lewd, and a major strength of the film. The story is not particularly original or even complicated. But even as any well-written comedy has, the moments of drama are well placed and lift the story when needed. Riskin would bristle at Capra’s repeated mantra of ‘one film, one man’, as the collaborative efforts of any film attest. Riskin’s contribution to this classic cannot be overstated.
Best Director – Frank Capra
Capra is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors and rightfully so. He had worked and struggled for years at Columbia, a studio that was beneath the contempt of majors such as MGM and Paramount. His success with It Happened One Night put Columbia on the map and out of Poverty Row.
Capra’s direction of the film is masterful and this is evident in the pacing of a film that isn’t exactly brimming with action and excitement. Yet the audience is captivated by the route the story takes and cares deeply about the characters. This is in great part due to the magic and freshness of Gable and Colbert as a screen couple but also because Capra knew how to exploit and bring out the best in them both. Capra’s natural eye and feel for what would work shapes the film into a comedic and romantic delight. Some of the most memorable scenes become timeless because of Capra’s sensibilities; the ‘Walls Of Jericho’ scene with a shirtless Gable and Colbert in her slip played on the sexual tension needed without the scene being overcooked or exploited pointlessly and the hitch-hiking scene had Capra coax Colbert to show a bare leg. The scene which perhaps illustrates Capra’s fine sense of direction and pacing is the ‘The Man On The Flying Trapeze” scene – a folksy and joyous scene which seemed natural, warm and spontaneous. It provides an intimate moment of singing and music, without the usual big budget and fantastical production that was typical of a musical scene. Gable seems to be enjoying it immensely although Colbert stated that she initially couldn’t see how it worked into the story. Capra gently alleviated her concerns and it was afterwards that Colbert saw the appeal of the scene and realized that ‘I knew we had something’. Capra had sensed this whilst filming the scene, as extras and even the bus driver joined in. Extra cameras were brought in and the scene also provided a reason for the bus crash. Capra saw the appeal of the scene and worked to bring it into his over-arching vision and feel for ‘the people’.
The critics appreciated his work. Kate Cameron in The Daily News exclaimed ‘The direction is excellent. Frank Capra never lets his picture lag for a moment. It is never very exciting, but it moves along snappily and it is full of amusing situations’. Today, critics have been just as appreciative. David Kehr in The Chicago Reader has stated, ‘This is Capra at his best, very funny and very light, with a minimum of populist posturing’.
Winning his first Academy Award had a sense of the bittersweet for Capra. He has been terribly ill prior to the ceremony and would for some time suffer what he called the ‘catastrophe of success’ in spite of future classics such as Mr Deeds Comes To Town (1936) and Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) to come.
Best Film – Columbia Pictures (Harry Cohn and Frank Capra)
The category celebrates and acknowledges that film is a collaborative art-form and It Happened One Night combines the best elements of the artform. Again, not many expected the film to win any awards, yet it snagged the biggest prize of all and there are few who would argue today that it didn’t deserve it.
Capra acknowledged that comedies at that point in time were not something that many stars were aching to work in. It Happened One Night changed all that and the fact that major studios now rushed to produce romantic and screwball comedies. The appeal of the film was not merely an audience fad – it had something and it still has today.
Eric Melin in his review for Scene-Stealers.com sums up the lasting appeal of the film brilliantly:
‘Viewed even today with all of its plot elements recycled ad nauseam by Hollywood (for rom-coms, road trip comedies, odd couple/buddy films, etc.), the film still holds up because we believe Gable and Colbert and can identify with them both right away’.
Capra’s direction, Riskin’s script and particularly the magic of Gable and Colbert as a screen couple all combined to create one of Hollywood’s most memorable and special films.
When the Award for Best Picture was announced, it was Harry Cohn who accepted the award. After 11 years, playing second fiddle to the majors, the studio he headed had finally made it. Incredibly, Cohn produced an infinitely rare moment of humility, generosity and deference to Capra and Riskin, where he thanked them and stated about himself ‘I was only an innocent bystander’.
The film that never should have been has remained beloved by many and deservedly so.
- The Supporting Cast
There are a number of faces whose time on the screen is limited yet add memorable and valuable performances to the film. Walter Connolly is wonderful as Ellen’s millionaire father, who is anything but a heartless baron. That’s Ward Bond as the bus driver, who will later appear with Gable in Gone With The Wind and would have a long career in film and television. Roscoe Karns as Oscar Shapely ‘from Orange, New Jersey’ is as annoying as always and the delightful Alan Hale has a short moment as a small-time grifter. My personal favourite is Charles C. Wilson as Joe Gordon, the tough, brash newspaper editor with a heart of gold.
- The Inspiration for Bugs Bunny
Both Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett have gone on record stating that the Gable’s eating a carrot and talking with his mouth full inspired the creation of everyone’s favourite rabbit. Additionally, the name ‘Bugs’ could have been inspired during the scene where Peter scares Oscar Shapely off by mentioning the terrible fate of ‘Bugs’ Dooley.
- The Sets
Most of the scenes were shot without purpose built sets. The budget simply wasn’t there. The bus scenes were filmed on a cut-away and perhaps the most interesting scene from a technical point of view was the scene where Peter and Ellen almost kiss whilst sleeping in hay. That scene was actually filmed inside a circus tent during the day, with the sounds of crickets edited in later. This sound technique was very new and would become normal practice soon afterwards.
A special thank you to Kellee at Unspoken and Freckled, Aurora (aka @CitizenScreen) of Once Upon A Screen, Paula (aka @Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club, for the opportunity to be part of the ’31 Days Of Oscar’ Blogathon. For links to the this event, please click on the following link:
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.