It Happened One Night won the Oscar for Outstanding Production in 1935. Eleven other films were in contention; I won’t bother listing them. Frank Capra also won the Oscar for Best Director, Clark Gable for Best Actor, Claudette Colbert for Best Actress and Robert Riskin for Best Adaptation (now Best Adapted Screenplay), a sweep which has been repeated only twice since (by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs). It ranks top of the films of 1934 on IMDB. I cannot recall ever having heard of it before starting this project.
It’s a screwball romantic comedy set on a journey from Miami to New York, the first part of which is accomplished by bus. The stars are Clark Gable as journalist Peter Warne, Claudette Colbert as spoiled rich girl Ellie Andrews, and Walter Connolly as Ellie’s father, millionaire Alexander Andrews. The plot is very simple: Ellie is fleeing her father’s control to be with the man she thinks she loves, but meets Peter on the bus and, after a few twists and turns, realises she wants to be with him instead. Here’s a trailer with some of the best lines:
I really enjoyed it. This was the first Oscar-winning film that I felt I could inflict on my wife without having to make too many excuses for it being a creation of its own times. As usual, I’m going to take the bits I liked least first.
Alcohol: It’s rather extraordiary to today’s sensibilities to see Peter Warne very drunk on his first appearance, and both he and Andrews père get drunk, on their own, in later scenes. In a film made in 2017, these would be clear signals of alcoholism. It’s very difficult to comprehend how alcohol abuse could ever have been portrayed as a heroic characteristic to the extent that it is here. Daniel Grossvogel has an interesting comment on this in his book Marianne and the Puritan: Transformations of the Couple in French and American Films (p. 32 if you want to check):
[Peter] is also granted the generic masculine resort to drink: Hollywood long accepted as an unvarying semiotic that the male’s hard drinking was an instance of manliness – a tough remedy used as a form of valiant concealment. But whereas the manly hero remains sober even as he drinks, comedy makes Peter truculently tipsy rather than sorrowful.
Whitewashing:The story takes us from Miami to New York, ie through the heart of the Old South, and we see precisely one black character, a cook at the first stop played by Ira “Buck” Woods, in his first (uncredited) screen role; he went on to be a leading man in black cinema in the 1940s, though his most durable work is probably the vocals for Tom’s performance of “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” in the 1946 Tom and Jerry short Solid Serenade.
Landscape: California does not look much like the East Coast. There are mountains in the establishing scene with the yacht supposedly in Miami (which has no mountains). The roads are Western rather than Eastern. The railway train is branded “Southern Pacific”. Note how even the scenes supposedly set in New York do not use establishing shots of famous landmarks.
The Battle of the Sexes: I thought I really wasn’t going to like this aspect of the film at first. Ellie escapes the physical control of her father in the first scene, and almost immediately slips involutarily into Peter’s guardianship. But actually her plot line turns out to be one of emancipation and personal choice, ultimately supported by her father, ending with (very tastefully implied offscreen) glorious sex with Peter. The turning point in a way is when after Peter, having bragged about his hitch-hiking skills, fails to get them a lift, she succeeds immediately by showing her leg to the next driver.
Ellie: I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.
Peter: Why didn’t you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.
Ellie: Well, ooo, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.
I once hitch-hiked across a medium-seized country (Heilbronn to Berlin, and back) with a woman called Ellen with whom I had a slightly spiky relationship, but I hope I was less smug (I was only 19).
The Inspiration for Bugs Bunny: Yes, really. Clark Gable with the carrots.
The Contemporary Technology: The bus itself is rather a star – brilliant early twentieth-century creaky technology. I watched the film on a transatlantic flight where I had three seats to myself – United Airlines not being so popular these days – but I bantered a bit with the chap across the aisle about how British Airways (or basically any other airline) are much better. Back in the old days if you wanted to travel from Miami to New York you became part of a community for the day and a half (maybe two days, in the 1930s) of the trip. That little social laboratory is conveyed very well.
While we’re on the technology, let’s shout out for the autogyro in which Ellie’s imminently spurned lover arrived at their wedding. They were used a lot in the 1930s before helicopters overtook them. I remember one being featured on Blue Peter in the 1970s.
There’s a scene with Ellie’s father on a plane as well, and the use of telegraph and the print media to carry the news of her disappearance. (It was obviously a slow news week that week, if she made the front pages.)
The Music: Unless I missed something, the sound apart from the opening titles is entirely diegetic. Clark Gable mockingly sings “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”, which had only come out the previous year. A group of passengers on the coach sing “The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze” rather wonderfully. (Wikipedia says that Walter O’Keefe made the song popular in 1934, which would make it tricky to explain why it’s sung in a film largely made in 1933; Wikipedia is however wrong, as O’Keefe actually released it in 1928 and again in 1932. I can’t be bothered to correct Wikipedia; feel free to do so yourself.) Most joyfully, Frank Capra the director provides the third verse of “Flying Trapeze” in a cameo.
The Comedy: Once Gable and Colbert have got over the setup, they are a great double-act, the best scene perhaps being where they are interrogated by detectives looking for her and put on a convincing performance of being a squabbling married couple. There are some other great sparking moments, including Peter’s threat to undress in front of Ellie (apparently sales of undershirts in America plummeted as a result), and this exchange:
Ellie: Would you believe it? This is the first time I’ve ever been alone with a man!
Ellie: It’s a wonder I’m not panic-stricken.
Peter: You’re doing alright.
Ellie: Thanks. Nurses, governesses, chaperones, even bodyguards. Oh, it’s been a lot of fun.
I’m also going to shout out to Roscoe Karns, as creepy fellow-passenger Shapeley, who was also a senior officer in Wings and therefore (I think; I haven’t been keeping track) is the first actor to appear in two winners of the Best Picture Oscar or equivalent.
Basically this was a lot of fun, more than I expected it to be from the first fifteen minutes. Next up is Mutiny on the Bounty.
I tracked down the original story, “Night Bus”, in the anthology No, But I Saw The Movie, edited by David Wheeler. The original author was Samuel Hopkins Adams, and it was originally published in Cosmopolitan, though Dell then brought it out as a standalone a year later. He made his name thirty years before as a young journalist investigating patent medicine scams, and also wrote risqué novels in the 1920s. None of his work is in print but some of the stories (not this one) are available electronically through various means.
The film sticks surprisingly closely to the 50 pages, the biggest deviations being i) Peter is a chemist, not a journalist, with a new process that will make him rich and turns out to be a college friend of Ellie’s cousin; i) the bus passengers are stranded on an island when the river floods and Peter steals a boat to get himself and Ellie away, rather than driving across country; and ii) modern technology resolves the story when Andrews père records his conversation with Peter on a dictaphone and plays it back to Ellie to convince her of Peter’s character – no autogyro here. But the “walls of Jericho” punchline is in the original. Two weak points in the film script are explained better in the story – Ellie goes to the Windsor Hotel in Jacksonville to take a bath (also she owns the hotel), which is why they miss the bus; and the larcenous driver Danker is portrayed more as knave than fool. Also interesting to note that “Ellie” is short for “Elspeth” not “Ellen” in the original story, and her father has two very Scottish middle names. Was their Scottishness too difficult for Hollywood to handle in the 1930s?
1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008)