‘It Happened One Night’ (1934); The First Film To Win The Big Five At The Oscars

by Paul Batters

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

Special Mentions

  • 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: 

https://kelleepratt.com/2018/02/23/day-one-31-days-of-oscar-blogathon/

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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.

The Inspirational Hero: Frank Capra’s ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941)

by Paul Batters

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‘Why, your types as old as history! If you cant lay your dirty fingers on a decent idea and twist it and squeeze it and stuff it into your own pocket, you slap it down! Like dogs, if you cant eat something – you bury it!’ John Doe (Gary Cooper)

Cinema has provided heroes and heroines since its’ inception. If recent films are anything to go by (quality and depth notwithstanding), the audience interest in heroes has certainly not waned. Humans need heroes – they fill a deep need for inspiration, hope and the often a powerful desire for heroic qualities to be found within ourselves. That unfulfilled self-identification is transferred onto the screen, where we imagine ourselves to always have the right words, the right reaction and certainly the uncanny ability to successfully deal with a sworn enemy.

But the traditional journey of the hero is almost always a difficult one; a trope that can be traced all the way back to tales of Greek mythology. One of the most potent aspects of the hero’s make-up in literature and film is that of the reluctant hero. Cinema is rich with this particular figure, where the hero is plagued with nagging self-doubt and initially may hold no heroic qualities that we can easily identify. Yet what makes such a hero so compelling is that they are made from the same clay we are all made from – they are just like us and yet rise above their supposed station to make changes, save the day and stand up for what is right.

Frank Capra has made some of Hollywood’s greatest and most memorable films, focusing at times on such heroes and drawing on the literary and cinematic figure of ‘the everyman’. Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) are perhaps two of Capra’s most celebrated films, whose central character is the ‘everyman’ hero with Jimmy Stewart starring in both films. Stewart’s performance in both films has long resonated with audiences for obvious reasons and though they are different characters with vastly different storylines, Stewart personifies Capra’s everyman in both of these classic films.

However, another Capra film, which perhaps does not receive the accolades that the aforementioned films do, was his first with Warner Bros. after leaving Columbia. 1941’s Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is also a story of the ‘everyman’ and more to the point, the reluctant hero. Whilst not as explicit in its’ celebration of individualism as It’s A Wonderful Life, with greater focus on community, Meet John Doe nevertheless hails the role of the everyman hero and the impact that the individual can have in his or her world.

Capra was a complex individual and whilst not a focus of this article, it is important to note that Capra was a Republican despite his progressive outlook and the heroes of his films would obviously reflect his worldview. Those he collaborated with, particularly Robert Riskin, who co-wrote many of Capra’s best-known films, often swayed him towards realism, liberal ideas and progressive politics. Conservative right-wing writer Myles Connolly, who would contribute to the script of Meet John Doe, would steer Capra towards rediscovering his Catholicism, as well as feed Capra’s dislike of President Roosevelt. The Christ-like figure holding high value tenets of humility, innocence and sacrifice is at the core of Capra’s heroes and was certainly influenced by Connolly’s 1928 book Mr Blue – a book greatly admired by Capra.

Meet John Doe is the story of ex-baseball drifter ‘Long’ John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) who becomes part of a publicity stunt for a newspaper. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is a tough, sassy reporter just fired by Henry Connell (James Gleason), the new managing editor for the newspaper just purchased by publisher D.B Norton (Edward Arnold). Her last article for the paper features a ‘letter from a John Doe’ who threatens to jump from City Hall on Christmas Eve at midnight, to protest civilization ‘going to pot’ and the ‘slimy politics’ present in the current world. The letter stirs up a hornet’s nest and Ann (eventually supported by Connell) sees the opportunity to save her job and save her own career by exploiting the situation. John is hired to claim her wrote the letter and will become the face of a ‘I Protest’ column for the newspaper, ghost-written by Ann. However, John’s companion and anti-society conscience ‘The Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) continuously speaks out against the whole situation, acting as a brake on John’s journey, which John often ignores.

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Stylistically, Meet John Doe initially displays all the hallmarks of the screwball comedy and this appears to be the template, which Capra works with. However, the turning point of the film arrives with Norton meeting with Ann and Connell. Norton has greater designs other than being a media baron and Capra lays the foundations for his key theme – the dangers of fascism and dictatorship. John is to make a radio speech (written by Ann, who draws inspiration from her late father) and at first he is nervous, unsure and even considering taking a payment not to make the speech by a rival newspaper. At first John’s concerns are selfish, especially when it is made clear to him that his plan to use the money to fix his arm will be thwarted by the truth getting out. But when he starts delivering the speech, encouraged by Ann’s idealism, he starts to become animated and his delivery arouses the audience. Norton realises something is happening, as does Connell, whose bitter cynicism from years in the newspaper game, has hardened him. Ann is moved to tears by the end of the speech but John feels like a cheat and runs off with his friend and fellow hobo ‘The Colonel’.

Here, we see the essence of the reluctant hero. Yes, he is a fake at first but he is deeply conflicted by his fakery whilst delivering what is ostensibly truth and hope in the message. John runs not because he doesn’t want to be found out to be a paid player in a publicity stunt but because he feels that he is cheating the people listening and committing a desecration of the message he is giving them. Yes he later laments his decision, telling The Colonel ‘I had the money in my hand’ but it is not delivered with real conviction and it appears that his motivation is the inspiration from Ann. On a side note, despite Ann’s telling Norton that what she wants is money, her emotional response when John finishes his speech, reveals she too believes in the message, seeing her father’s words alive in John.

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Meanwhile, a grassroots movement starts, inspired by John’s speech, and John Doe clubs begin to spring up. Ann, along with Norton track John down and they convince John to come back and help build the movement. Finally convinced, the movement begins to spread ‘like a prairie fire’ with Capra using an effective montage to show its’ growth and the energy John brings to his role.

Yet John will discover how naïve he has been and a showdown with Norton reveals his motivation – to use the John Doe Movement as a political tool for his own device to become President. Norton’s mask drops and the fascist overtones are final revealed – contempt for the masses as a ‘rabble’ and the need to rule the nation ‘with an iron hand’. At a large conference where John is supposed to endorse Norton for President, he instead states that he will reveal Norton’s scheme. John’s impassioned rebuttal fully illustrates John’s deepest feelings and his belief in the movement. But Norton makes the point that he is the ‘fake’ and that he and his retinue of industrialists and power brokers ‘believe in what we’re doing’.

But John has transcended this and goes to the conference, only to be undone by Norton being prepared and the revelation that John was and always had been a paid actor in a publicity stunt. The Christ-like element in Capra’s hero comes to the fore, with the crowd that primarily ‘worshipped’ him now turning on him and calling for his head. Begging to the crowd to ‘stick to your clubs’ and that ‘the idea is still good’ proves futile. Police get John out but his reputation is destroyed. A tearful Ann, who has lost John’s trust, despite a love growing between them, tearfully mourns how events have unfolded. Connell cynically offers a brilliant epitaph – ‘chalk another one up to the Pontius Pilates’. His comment more than cements the Christ-like persona of Capra’s hero – a (not so) innocent victim crucified by evil men for political purposes.

The following montage shows a dejected figure in John Doe, all washed up and mocked by the public, finally heading towards the City Hall to redeem not so much himself but the John Doe movement and the message that he had given for so long. As tempting as it is to discuss the ending at length, I will refrain from spoilers but needless to say John Doe’s reluctance as hero has been left far behind and the power of ‘the people’ is a strong statement against the dangers of fascism and that ultimately the ‘John Does’ of the world will overcome the dictators of the world – quite a statement in 1941 with the world (and soon the U.S) in the throes of World War Two.

Capra and Riskin wrote the script and obviously drew on the formula previously used to shape their hero. John Willoughby is laconic, naïve though not stupid and a man of ‘the people’ (and a baseball player no less). But there was a problem with Capra’s hero – John Willoughby is initially a ‘fake’ and ‘imposter’. Yet whilst some critics (even Capra himself who flip-flopped on the issue) have seen this as a major flaw in the film, it actually offers a powerful dimension to the concept of the hero, and the ebb and flow of the hero’s journey becomes evident from the moment John takes on the persona of ‘John Doe’ till the climax of the film.

There are contradictions in Capra’s hero and a number of critics have made some fair comments. Critic Andrew Sarris charged that in some ways John Doe is himself a demagogue with fascist overtones yet is speaking out against fascism and demagoguery, and embracing a populist approach to galvanising people into the John Doe movement. There is constant tension between the best and worst of individualism, and the reality of political corruption. Yet what makes Meet John Doe work and thus Gary Cooper’s portrayal an inspirational one is illustrated by Jeffrey Anderson’s review in Combustible Celluloid where he states that the film is not condescending or angry, nor does it seek reward or the audience’s affirmation that John is a hero but offers hope as its’ message. By extension, Sean Axmaker in Parallax View makes an astute point:

‘Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics, but nonetheless it is hard not to make a connection. It’s still salt of the earth citizens trying to make their voices heard…’

Certainly a different approach to movements today and their appropriation by others!

John’s inspiration and authenticity is measured by his growth as a hero and acceptance of his responsibility in the role. In the end, John rejects those close to him because he can only carry out the solution he feels is necessary alone. As an audience, it is impossible not to be touched by John Doe and the hero that emerges from his earlier reluctance and even later inner conflict. It is this factor that makes John Doe even more authentic and real for all of us, as we too find ourselves struggling with the obstacles of life that seem insurmountable and too crippling to deal with. Meet John Doe has its’ flaws but to focus on them is to miss the beauty of Capra’s hero and thus the inspiration of the most simple rule – ‘love thy neighbour’.

For a viewing of the film, please click on the link below:

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