It Happened One Night is a Pre Code romantic comedy/road movie directed by Frank Capra. At the 7th Academy Awards in February 1935, the film won an unprecedented haul of awards, becoming the first film to win ‘the big five’ of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. The feat went unmatched for over forty years and has only ever been matched twice. Although slow to catch on with critics and the public alike, word of mouth turned it into an unstoppable box office hit becoming Columbia’s highest grossing movie up to that point. Eighty years on from its release, the film remains an irresistible picture, combining drama and romance with a sizable dollop of Pre Code sentiment and behaviour.
Based on the short story Night Bus, the plot concerns a young heiress called Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) who runs away from her comfortable lifestyle after her father attempts to have her marriage to a newly met aviator annulled. Aboard a bus to New York City she meets a down and out reporter called Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Warne is cocky and carefree and soon discovers there’s a story in the runaway girl. He agrees to help fund her journey to New York in return for cooperation on his story and the two begin a series of adventures on their way to the city.
Though the film has aged in appearance, in tone it feels as fresh as the day it was put in the can. The story is a simple one and its development feels natural. The script is witty and tight and features some sumptuous period dialogue and dishy back and forth. It manages to tread the thin line between respectful and risqué with the pair sharing close quarters and uses the idea of an unmarried couple cohabiting to its advantage when injecting humour and sexual frisson. As you’d expect, anything too sexual is implied or hinted at but being produced just months before the Hays Code clamped down on the film industry, it was able to get away with a lot more than pictures made in the years following it. Examples of this edginess are dotted throughout the movie and include Gable’s bare chest as he changes in front of Colbert, the sometimes violent language used and a famous scene in which Colbert uses her feminine charm (stocking clad leg) to hitchhike.
The two leads share great chemistry and indeed got on well behind the camera. It comes across in abundance as the pair fight, bicker and blackmail along their journey. The shift in relationship is always obvious but when it happens, you’re exultant as you’ve grown to enjoy the character’s company. Like Lady and the Tramp they seem mismatched at the outset but by the end, you can’t imagine them with anyone else. What isn’t so obvious to see is just how much Claudette Colbert disliked participating in the film. She demanded double her normal salary just to appear and was at constant loggerheads with director Frank Capra. When the movie wrapped, she reportedly told a friend that, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” None of Colbert’s dissatisfaction comes across on screen and it looks for all intense and purpose as though she’s having a great time.
Colbert, like co-star Clark Gable won an Oscar for her performance and both are well deserved. Colbert plays Ellie as wily and strong willed, hard on the outside but with a soft, sweet centre. Peter Warne is a perfect fit for Gable. Although not as rough and tumble as some of his other famous roles, his portrayal of Warne as a driven and hard nosed man is excellent. He’s a little boy inside a grown man and both sides of this come across. The sparkling chemistry the couple share aids both performances immeasurably.
Capra’s direction is first class and the fact that he managed to shoot the picture in just four weeks makes it look even better. A lot of the film is shot on location on the road but the studio work is wonderfully lit and beautifully captured. The sets are simple but effective and I especially enjoyed the bus sets which were rocked around with a little too much energy. Capra’s ability to make something beautiful on a small budget and tight schedule must have helped him throughout his Columbia career.
There is very little in this film of which I wasn’t keen. The score wasn’t particularly imposing but I didn’t miss having something more effective. Overall it runs along at a decent pace, not allowing its audience to grow tired. The leads are excellent and the script still shines today. The film looks marvellous after all these years and I can’t argue with any one of its record breaking Oscar wins.
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