Thursday, February 22, 2024

The 90th Anniversary of It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934) remains one of the most famous screwball comedies of all time. It could well be the most famous Pre-Code screwball comedy. It has been referenced in numerous movies and even television shows ever since. It was ninety years ago today, on February 22 1934, that It Happened One Night was released.

It Happened One Night (1934) centred on a spoiled heiress, Ellen "Ellie" Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who runs away from the father (Walter Connolly) after eloping with pilot King Westley (Jameson Thomas). While on the run, she encounters recently fired newspaper reporter Peter Wayne (Clark Gable), who tells her that he will return her to her beloved Westley if she gives him an exclusive on her story. If she doesn't agree to this, then he will alert her father as to her whereabouts. The two then make a cross-country trip to get Ellie back to Westley. Of course, as might be expected, everything doesn't go according to plan.

The path of  It Happened One Night began in the page of a 1933 issue of Cosmopolitan with the short story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Both screenwriter Robert Riskin and director Frank Capra, who had already made several movies together, read "Night Bus" and decided that it would make for a good motion picture. Despite this, Robert Riskin would make several changes in both characters and even plot that would ultimately make It Happened One Night very different from the short story upon which it was based.

Although today it is difficult to see anyone else in the roles of Ellie and Peter, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable were not the first actors considered for the roles. The initial choice for the role of Peter Wayne was Robert Montgomery, whom Columbia Pictures would have had to borrow from MGM. As it turned out, Robert Montgomery committed to another movie featuring a bus at MGM, Fugitive Lovers (1934). The role of Peter then went to Clark Gable, on loan from MGM. According to legend, Louis B. Mayer made the loan has punishment for being uncooperative and even demanding a raise. According to more recent sources, this might not have been the case. At the time Clark Gable was cast in It Happened One Night, MGM had no projects for him and was still having to pay him the $2000 a week his contract required. Columbia paid MGM $2500 a week to borrow Clark Gable. As a result, MGM then made a profit of $500 a week. Regardless, Clark Gable did not appreciate being loaned to a lesser studio (Columbia was borderline Poverty Row at the time).

The casting of Ellie would prove even more difficult. Myrna Loy was the first choice for the role, but she turned it down because she did not like the script. She would later say that the script she saw when she was offered the part was very different from the finished product. Miriam Hopkins also turned down the role of Ellie, and she even told Robert Riskin at the time that It Happened One Night "was just a silly comedy." Margaret Sullavan and Constance Bennett also turned the role down. Ultimately, it was Harry Cohn who suggested the casting of Claudette Colbert. Director Frank Capra and Claudette Colbert had previously worked together on For the Love of Mike (1927), which was not a particularly pleasant experience for either of them. Miss Colbert agreed to take the role primarily for the money. The $50,000 she would make for the four weeks she would make while working on It Happened One Night was more than the $25,000 per movie she was being paid at Paramount. 

While Claudette Colbert agreed to make the film, at times Frank Capra still did not find her particularly easy to work with. According to Mr. Capra, Miss Colbert "..had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me." It is well-known that Claudette Colbert initially refused to hike up her skirt and show her legs in the famous hitch-hiking scene. Frank Capra then hired a showgirl whose legs would double for those of Miss Colbert in the scene. This only angered Claudette Colbert, who told Frank Capra, "Get her out of here. I'll do it. That's not my leg!" While Claudette Colbert could be a handful for the director (at least according to Mr. Capra), he admitted that "..she was wonderful in the part."

It Happened One Night premiered in Miami, Florida on February 18 1934 before being released on February 22 1934. For the most part, It Happened One Night received positive reviews. Initially It Happened One Night only did modestly well at the box office, but began doing extraordinarily well several weeks into its release. It ultimately became the third highest grossing film of 1934. It also did well at the Academy Awards. It Happened One Night was nominated for all five major awards (Outstanding Production, Best Director for Frank Capra, Best Actor for Clark Gable, Best Actress for Claudette Colbert, and Best Adaptation for Robert Riskin). It became the first ever motion picture to win all five of the major Oscars. Only One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Silence of the Lambs would repeat this feat.

It Happened One Night would be adapted for radio. On March 30 1939, Lux Radio Theatre aired an adaptation in which Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert reprised their roles in the film. It was on January 28 1940 that Campbell Playhouse did an adaptation of It Happened One Night starring William Powell as Peter Wayne and Miriam Hopkins as Ellie Andrews. It Happened One Night would be remade as the musical Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) and the musical comedy You Can't Run Away from It (1956).

It Happened One Night is significant as one of the earliest screwball comedies, as well as one of the most successful. It was also one of the last comedies to be released in the Pre-Code era. It was released only about four and a half months before the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began more strictly enforcing the Production Code in July 1934. It Happened One Night would certainly have a lasting impact on popular culture. There can be no doubt that its success led to further screwball comedies. The famous hitch-hiking scene from It Happened One Night would be parodied in the Laurel & Hardy movie Way Out West (1937). The hitch-hiking scene would also be referenced in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), A Fistful of Fingers (1997), and other movies and TV shows. The wedding in It Happened One Night would be parodied in Mel Brooks's sci-fi comedy Spaceballs (1987).

It would also have an impact on American animation. According to legendary animator Friz Freleng, the character Bugs Bunny drew heavily upon It Happened One Night for inspiration. The character Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) repeatedly uses "Doc" as a nickname for Peter Wayne. When Peter pretends to be a gangster in order to threaten Shapeley, he makes reference to a fictional gangster named "Bugs Dooley." A scene in which Clark Gable chomps on carrots would also have an impact on Bugs Bunny, who often talks while eating a carrot.

It Happened One Night still regularly ranks in lists of the greatest films ever made. What is more, it remains popular ninety years after its release. Its influence is certainly still being felt to this day.

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