It Happened One Night (1934): Screwball Comedy Review

Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert Star in Frank Capra’s Screwball Comedy Classic

Regarded as the first screwball comedy, It Happened One Night almost didn’t happen. Once it did, the magic was apparent.

The format of It Happened One Night, the first screwball and romantic comedy, is still seen in romantic comedies today: boy and girl meet, fall in love, fight, break up, yet find true happiness in the end.

In It Happened One Night, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled rich girl who cannot get a break. Married to a man her father (Walter Connelly) dislikes, Ellie runs away by bus to meet her husband, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), in New York.

Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is another story. After getting fired, this low-brow news reporter boards the same bus and finds himself sharing a seat with Ellie. But Peter isn’t all bad. From the start, he watches over Ellie, despite her early disapproval.

Sharing madcap experiences and meeting oddball characters, Ellie and Peter grow to like each other. But after Ellie begs Peter to take her away with him, things take a turn for the worse. What happens next is as screwball as their earlier adventures.

Colbert has just enough sass to make Ellie seem spoiled but not unlikeable, while Gable’s rogue reporter with a soft heart is her perfect equal. Frank Capra’s direction completed It Happened One Night, showing his talent for filming comedy that shines through the picture.

Making of It Happened One Night

Ironically, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night was intended as punishment for Gable who was loaned to the fledgling Columbia Pictures – nicknamed “Siberia” – by MGM hothead Louis B. Mayer. Gable was making demands for better roles and better pay, storming Mayer’s office with threats one too many times. As soon as he got a taste of life over at poverty row, Gable would crawl back to MGM appreciating whatever scraps he got – or so Mayer thought.

Over at Paramount, Colbert was about to embark on a four-week vacation and loudly proclaimed nothing but $50,000 and a four-week shooting schedule would keep her from the Sun Valley. To her amazement, Capra agreed. She wasn’t too keen on working with Capra again since her first pairing with the director resulted in a flop (For the Love of Mike, 1927).

This time around, she won an Academy Award for Best Actress, while Gable won for Best Actor, Capra for Best Director, and Robert Riskin for Writing. The film itself was chosen as Best Picture of 1934.

In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title [DeCapo Press, 1997], director Frank Capra said the making of It Happened One Night could have been its own screwball comedy.

Several actors turned down the roles of Peter and Ellie. Robert Montgomery passed on the chance to play Peter, while Colbert’s role was rejected by Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett, and Margaret Sullivan.

Gable had no choice. A rising star at MGM, he was loaned to Columbia Pictures as punishment to keep him in his place. He showed up to meet Capra drunk, angry, and rude.

Colbert did not want to do the movie either until she learned Gable would be her costar, and she would make twice her normal Paramount Studio salary for this picture and shoot it in a month.

At that time, Columbia was known as a Poverty Row company, making only B-grade movies, and few big stars wanted to work there. It was this movie that is credited with bringing Columbia up from its low status.

Colbert continued to argue and complain about everything while on the set – in a cute way, Capra said in his autobiography, which helped her maintain the image as Ellie Andrews.

Gable, on the other hand, quickly grew to enjoy his role as Peter Warne. Capra said he thought it was “the only picture in which Gable was ever allowed to play himself: the fun-loving, boyish, attractive, he-man rogue that was the real Gable” [The Name Above the Title, DeCapo Press, 1997].

Movie Records Broken, Fashion Standards Set

Despite everyone’s low expectations, It Happened One Night turned out to be a masterpiece, setting other standards as well.

It was the first movie — and the first comedy — to sweep the Oscars, winning all five major categories: Best Actor, Actress, Picture, Screenplay, and Director. It was also the only movie for which Gable and Colbert won Academy Awards, according to Internet Movie Database.

The scene of Gable undressing in the motel room started several new fashion trends. Men stopped wearing undershirts and started wearing Norfolk jackets, V-neck sweaters, and trenchcoats. After this movie, Gable wore a trenchcoat in many of his films, considering it his lucky garment.

Well worth watching, it is no wonder this film was voted the #3 romantic comedy ever by the American Film Institute in 2008.

Read more about Clark Gable in It Happened One Night.

  • It Happened One Night
  • Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
  • Written by Robert Riskin
  • Directed by Frank Capra
  • Running time: 106 minutes

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