It Happened One Night - 1934

It Happened One Night - Released February 23, 1934

Capra's tale of a spoiled rich girl (Colbert) on the run (or making a brave bid for liberty, you choose) and her collision with a "hard-boiled" just-unemployed reporter (Clark Gable) is a comedy-romance that capitalized on the burgeoning interest in early 1930s for the rapidly developing system of mass transportation. Part of the story is staged aboard a cross-country "night bus" in which Capra has a carefully constructed series of small, overlapping vignettes that sketch out the various passengers and their stories (a starving mother and son, the salesman 'Shapeley' played by Roscoe Karns "...and that's how I like'm, 'shapely!" he tells Colbert who has the misfortune to sit next to him.)

The story about the making of the film is that both Colbert and Gable were sent to Columbia to make the film for reasons other than a desire to work with the studio's star director, Frank Capra (he had just got an Academy Award nomination for Lady for a Day, 1933). Instead, Gable was being punished by M-G-M and Colbert was simply doing a part for a significantly higher rate of pay. When she originally proposed her salary, double her usual rate, she had no expectation a 'poverty row' studio like Columbia would actually pay it, and it may have been proposed with the intention of driving Harry Cohn, the Columbia chief, away from her door.

But both Harry Cohn and Frank Capra were determined to push their way upward from Columbia being categorized as a second-string operation, and they went all-out to take advantage of having top-tier Hollywood talent like Gable and Colbert at hand. Capra and his cinematographer Joseph Walker carefully mapped out a visually impressive story that shows no sign of penny-pinching, and the script work by Robert Riskin is practically built around the onscreen personalities of the two stars (Riskin adapted the script from the story Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams). The movie later rolled up an impressive series of awards, especially the Hollywood Academy Award 'Grand Slam' of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

The impact of the movie on American culture was enormous at the time. The gestating 'screwball comedy' genre was crystallized around the components of It Happened One Night (wealthy people + crazy situations + the American economic depression). The film is claimed to be the source for three important American cartoon characters:  Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam and Pepé Le Pew.

Many other actors and actresses had passed on the production, claiming the script was terrible (which panicked Capra and Cohn, but they were already committed to making it). Capra experimented while shooting, and Gable and Colbert helped by innovating certain scenes with their own suggestions, but no one was aware of how the public would react when it finally got to the screens. In fact, when production wrapped, Colbert was convinced it was the worst film of her career.

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Original Page Feb 2016

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