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It Happened One Night (1934) movie poster It Happened One Night

Theatrical Release: February 23, 1934 / Running Time: 105 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Frank Capra / Writers: Robert Riskin (screenplay); Samuel Hopkins Adams (short story)

Cast: Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Roscoe Karns (Oscar Shapeley), Jameson Thomas ("King" Westley), Alan Hale (Danker), Arthur Hoyt (Zeke), Blance Friderici (Zeke's Wife), Charles C. Wilson (Joe Gordon)

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- Viewed February 15, 2010

It Happened One Night gave birth to the romantic comedy as we know it today. While that genre is easy to dismiss as routine and uninspired, this delightful Frank Capra film is anything but.

Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a wealthy socialite whose father doesn't approve of her marriage to a gold-digging aviator.
After Daddy has her retrieved, she jumps off his boat and runs, er, swims away. On a bus to New York, she meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a newspaper reporter who's currently down on his luck. Seeing Ellie out of her environment and then recognizing her for the media icon she is, Peter agrees to help her try to reunite with her husband, so long as he alone can be the one to write about her unusual getaway.

What occurs isn't all that different from your run-of-the-mill modern romcom. He's an oft-condescending know-it-all. She's a spoiled girl who has been spared having to fend for herself. While you can anticipate where things are going, you don't have to put yourself in a 1930s mindset to enjoy the journey there. Somehow, you can just spot the lack of artifice, contrivedness, and lazy convention.

Heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and newspaper man Peter Warne (Clark Gable) are at odds but the only ones able to help each other in Frank Capra's classic cross-country screwball comedy "It Happened One Night." Ellie (Claudette Colbert) shows Peter (Clark Gable) how you hitch a car ride: show a little leg!

Much like Alfred Hitchcock, director Frank Capra was a filmmaker ahead of his time. Though charged by some as being corny and sentimental, Capra's comedies and sweet dramas have aged so much more gracefully than those of his contemporaries. Unlike Hitchcock (whose films were increasingly popular, but rarely considered seriously excellent), Capra's work was regularly recognized in his lifetime, beginning with 1933's Lady for a Day.

That film's four Oscar nominations were nothing compared to the accolades lavished upon It Happened One Night. This inventor of the screwball comedy became the first to pull off an Academy Award sweep, winning trophies for picture, director, adapted screenplay, and both of its stars. Only One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs have since claimed all five of those major honors.

While I haven't seen enough silent and early talkie films to state this definitively, I get the feeling that It Happened One Night holds up better than every movie that preceded it. There is such a modern, almost postmodern, feel to the battle of wits and personality clash presented throughout. Only in the film's final moments, when a plot point is needlessly belabored, do we recognize that this is a scripted work. Most of the movie feels like spending time with two amusingly conflicting people. It is by no small achievement of Colbert and Gable that we completely buy Ellie and Peter's gradual, now-standard transition from butting heads to needing one another.

Peter (Clark Gable) explains how things are going to be to Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), an amusing, fast-talking supporting character who reportedly inspired Bugs Bunny. Hello, Clark Gable's bare chest. Goodbye, undershirt sales. Or so the legend goes...

The film, whose catchy title has little meaning to its story, does benefit from predating all of the romantic comedies that have no choice but to be inspired by it. Being first, however, doesn't necessarily make a movie as charming as this; there's a great sense of fun that moves us through the famous hitchhiking scene, the argumentative breakfast, and the establishment of the bedroom-dividing "Walls of Jericho."
These him-vs.-her moments may be the film's most remembered, but the separate interactions of both Gable and Colbert with irritating bus rider Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) (this film's clear-cut interesting supporting character) find the film at its most hilarious.

One has trouble believing that this seemingly timeless comedy needed word of mouth to take off, but when it did, there was no looking back, providing "minor" studio Columbia Pictures with its biggest hit to date.

There is much lore about It Happened One Night. That Colbert and Gable were far from the first choices for the leads is documented. So is, remarkably, the story that Colbert, not expecting to win her Best Actress Oscar, had to be pulled off a train (on which she was about to take a cross-country trip) and rushed to the awards ceremony. Less confirmed is the legend that sales of men's undershirts drastically declined after Gable's undressing reveals he's not wearing one. Also uncertain, but more believable, is the story that Gable's carrot-chomping and Karns' demeanor inspired confessed fan Friz Freleng to lend those qualities to the Looney Tunes icon Bugs Bunny.

Initially carrying a "Columbia Classics" banner (a title it deserves as much as any film), It Happened One Night's 10-year-old DVD has been repackaged and unbranded yet still seems ripe for a successor. But it certainly satisfies with an audio commentary and featurette from the late Frank Capra Jr., an hour-long 1939 radio broadcast with Gable and Colbert reprising their roles, a trailer, print ads, and the now-rare talent files.

It Happened One Night rating: 8.5 out of 10 - Buy from

Previous: Cavalcade (1933) / Next: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

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Published April 18, 2010.

Text copyright 2010 Images copyright 1934 Columbia Pictures and 1999 Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.