IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (Columbia, 1934), directed by Frank Capra, based on a short story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams, ranks one of the best known and popular romantic comedies from the 1930s, thanks to the star chemistry of Clark Gable (on loan from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Claudette Colbert (on loan from Paramount), with fine direction by Frank Capra, witty screenplay by Robert Risken, and for being the very first motion picture to win all five major Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Gable); Best Actress (Colbert); Best Director (Capra); Best Screenplay and Best Picture. This might have been an "upset" in 1934, considering other top-rated films and performances of the year, but who would have imagined IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT to still be as entertaining today as it was back in 1934?
This now well-known plot that's been remade twice by Columbia as EVE KNEW HER APPLES (1945) with Ann Miller and William Wright; and YOU CAN'T RUN AWAY FROM IT (1956) with June Allyson and Jack Lemmon, opens in a yacht in Miami where Ellen "Ellie" Andrews (Claudette Colbert), spoiled daughter of a millionaire Wall Street banker, Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly), who disapproves of her recent marriage to aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas), making arrangements on having it annulled. Following a heated argument with her father, Ellie runs from her state room, jumps overboard and swims to shore. Eluding her father's hired detectives, Ellie, acquiring new clothes, purchases a night bus ticket bound for New York City where she plans to meet Westley. While on board, Ellen encounters Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a hot-headed reporter recently fired by his editor, Joe Gordon (Charles C. Wilson). With both disliking each other immensely, Warne, having discovered the "spoiled brat's" identity, becomes her constant traveling companion in order to get an exclusive story and his job back. Hours before reaching New York and taking a rest stop in an auto camp, misunderstandings occur as Ellen awakens to find both Peter and the car gone.
A simple story playing like an overlong "B" movie, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is a memorable bus trip of so many classic scenes that have been imitated by others but never duplicated. Highlights include the "Walls of Jericho" where Peter and Ellen share a room in auto camps where a blanket is tossed over a rope that separates the couple as they sleep for the night; Peter demonstrating to Ellen on how a man undresses, particularly one in which he removes his shirt to no undershirt underneath; Peter's correct method of dunking a dough-nut into a cup of coffee; and the classic hitchhiking scene where Peter fails to attract cars while Ellen comes up with a method all her own.
Although IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is essentially a Claudette Colbert movie from start to finish (there's no secondary female character, quite rare for its time). Due to the strength of Gable's performance, this has been hailed to be his best comedic role. Gable's character is hot-headed and forceful, living by a moral code. Although he shares a cabin with a married woman, that's all he does. He even tells Colbert's Ellie when she asks if she'll ever see him again, he replies, "I make it a policy not to run around with married women." And when he's hungry, he takes a carrot from a farm rather than going through the method of panhandling. This is Gable, a role model. Director Frank Capra, whose subject matter is usually on people, captures the many extras, especially those on the bus and auto camps, to make them appear as important as leading players. Roscoe Karns is equally memorable, "believe you me!" as the gabby bus passenger, Oscar Shapeley from Orange, New Jersey; Ward Bond as the tough talking bus driver; the meek Arthur Hoyt and the nosy/ domineering Blanche Frederici as the auto camp owners; Georgie Breakston the poor boy traveling on the bus with his mother (Claire McDowell); along with other passengers gathered together and singing "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," to a player of a snoring fat and bald man who rests his head on Colbert's shoulder. During it's entire 106 minutes, there's seldom any underscoring. As for the costumes, with the exception of the final 15 minutes, both Gable and Colbert use the same clothing through most of their trip.
While Gable and Colbert had challenging roles in their careers, plus their reunion in MGM's large-scale BOOM TOWN (1940), it's amazing how this likable little comedy was the only one to honor them Academy Awards. There's a scene where I feel Gable earned his statuette, the one where he tells Ellen the type of girl he would like to someday marry, saying that those kind of women don't exist anymore. Gable says this with frankness and sincerity. Colbert on the other hand earned hers from that same scene as she she listens and looks on lovingly at Gable with tears flowing down her cheek, coming to realize it happened one night.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT not only became a perennial favorite on late night television during the 1960s and 70s, but on cable TV as well, ranging from the Disney Channel (1980s), American Movie Classics (prior to 2001) to Turner Classic Movies, and availability on video cassette and finally DVD. While IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT has aged in appearance, it's still timely screen entertainment. There'll never be another film like this again. (***1/2)
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