Watching it today, it’s impossible to imagine It Happened One Night (1934) starring anyone but Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
For Peter Warne, the out-of-work reporter who hopes to win back his newspaper job with a juicy story about a runaway heiress, they envisioned Robert Montgomery.
But Montgomery’s contract was with MGM, and Night was a Columbia production. Metro boss Louis B. Mayer refused to loan such a big star to a rival studio.
Instead Mayer offered a much less valuable player, Clark Gable, whose once-promising career was settling into a rut thick with gangsters and other heavies. Gable had been making what Mayer considered to be exorbitant salary demands for an actor who was yet to prove himself a star. He hoped that sending Gable to Columbia would be a humbling experience.
(It was, but for Mayer, not Gable.)
As for the role of Ellie Andrews, the rich girl fleeing an impetuous brief marriage, the filmmakers first sought out Myrna Loy. But she hated the early version of the screenplay. (After the film’s overwhelming success, she claimed the finished product bore little resemblance to the script she was given).
At the urging of Colombia boss Harry Cohn, Capra finally turned to Paramount’s Claudette Colbert, an established star who had reservations about the screenplay but was able to demand $50,000 for four weeks’ work. (By comparison, Gable was given only $10,000 for the film and complained that his co-star earned more in overtime than his entire paycheck.)
The story finds the odd couple Ellie and Peter bickering their way from Florida to New York. They ride on buses. They hitchhike. Practically penniless, they must share a cheap motel room.
If you think the current election season is thick with class warfare, you should see what was on movie screens in 1934.
The proletarian Peter constantly picks at Ellie’s sense of entitlement. He loves the fact that she’s getting a lesson in living hand-to-mouth. He has no shortage of ideas about what’s wrong with the country and he’s eager to share them.
Of course, while he’s spouting all this, he’s falling for the poor little rich girl.
The two stars weren’t at all sure it was going to work.
“Clark and I kept wondering, ‘What kind of reception can this kind of picture actually get?’” Colbert recalled. “This was right in the middle of the Depression. People needed fantasy, they needed a dream of splendor and glamour, and Hollywood gave it to them. And here we were, looking a little seedy, riding our bus.”
Colbert also was nervous about the thick (though good natured) atmosphere of sexuality she and Gable were expected to establish. Initially Colbert refused to appear in the famous hitchhiking scene in which Ellie pulls up her skirt and exposes a leg in order to stop a passing car. But when a chorus girl was brought on the set to be her “leg double,” the star balked.
“Get her out of here,” she snapped at Capra. “I'll do it. That's not my leg!”
It Happened One Night features a scene in which Gable’s newsman hangs a blanket on a clothes line to separate the twin beds in the motel room where he and Colbert are spending the night. He famously calls it the “Wall of Jericho.”
Then he proceeds to casually take off his shirt, revealing that, gasp, he isn’t wearing an undershirt.
In the weeks after the film’s release, sales of men’s undershirts nosedived.
Initially, it looked as if It Happened One Night wouldn’t be much of a hit. Despite setting a house record for an opening day at Radio City Music Hall, the film failed to attract big audiences and was gone in two weeks.
Columbia was about to write it off as a flop when the rural reports started coming in. Maybe the big city folk weren’t impressed, but in small-town America, It Happened One Night was a monster hit. People were seeing it two, three, even four times. Little local theaters couldn’t let it go, giving Columbia its most profitable year since before the stock market crash in ’29.
At the Academy Awards the picture cleaned up. It was the first movie to win all five major Oscars (picture, director, actor, actress, screenplay), a feat not duplicated until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 40 years later.
And it changed the lives of Gable and Capra.
Gable became an overnight sex symbol. The persona he established in It Happened One Night stayed with him for the rest of his life. He became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
And Capra, whose early movies received lukewarm receptions from the critics and at the box office, suddenly was the hottest filmmaker in the world.
He parlayed his fame into a long career, with many of his films – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s A Wonderful Life – embracing the heroism of the common man and the innate decency of average people.
Hollywood wags even came up a word to describe his work: Capra-corn.
The series Make ‘Em Laugh features films voted the best American comedies of all time by the American Film Institute.
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About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.