One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits I’ve discovered about It Happened One Night is just how much its lead actors hated working on the film. Its distributor, Columbia Pictures, was one of several studios on what was called “Poverty Row”. Other studios would send difficult actors to one of these lots as a ‘humbling experience,’ so they would learn to appreciate what they had. Clark Gable was sent there after a number of other actors had passed on the script, and Claudette Colbert only took the job when director Frank Capra told her he would double her salary and she would be done in four weeks. (At least, that’s the story according to IMDB.) Colbert was particularly unhappy the entire time, and didn’t think much of the final cut of the film.
Neither did critics or audiences, at first. It Happened One Night debuted to weak box office and indifferent reviews, and it looked like it would be another flop for Columbia. Then, something strange happened. It landed in second-rate theatres, and actually did better there. Word of mouth snowballed, more and more people saw it, and it actually turned into Columbia’s biggest hit at the time. This delayed wave of regard carried the film all the way to the Oscars, where it became the first of only three movies in history to win the “big five” awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Original or Adapted Screenplay).
Not bad for a movie that almost everyone involved with hated. What’s impressive is you wouldn’t know it by just watching the film — it looks like everyone involved is having a blast. Either Gable and Colbert are consummate professionals or their chemistry is just that good. I’d like to think the latter.
Colbert is Ellie Andrews, the socialite daughter of a very rich man. Her father doesn’t approve of her gunshot marriage to wealthy aviator King Westley (no kidding, that’s his actual name — he’s not royalty) and basically abducts her to his yacht. She escapes, and in order to avoid notice rides a Greyhound bus back to New York where she hopes to meet her new husband. There, she meets a reporter who just happened to quit his job moments ago, Peter Warne (Gable).
Peter offers to help Ellie evade capture if he gets exclusive rights to the story; if she refuses, he’ll blow the whistle and send her back into the loving, tight embrace of dear old dad. That’s the only set up you need before it’s off to the races. Gable and Colbert trade jabs with impeccable timing, and together they make one of the best screen couples I’ve ever seen, hands down. When you see two people who can’t stand each other slowly come together over the course of the film, you can bet they’re building on the template these guys formed.
Gable is as awesome as ever as a cad and conniver; he’s always in control, always has an idea for any situation. Peter gets Ellie out of as many scrapes as he gets her into, but she’s quite game to go along with it. In fact, she often takes his ideas and improves upon them in surprising ways — Ellie may be inexperienced, but she’s tremendously quick-witted. It’s great to see this sheltered socialite come into her own the way she does; not only does she rise to the occasion, she loves doing it.
It Happened One Night is remembered quite fondly because it treats its romantic leads equally; Peter has his foibles and vulnerabilities just as much as Ellie. She picks at them, too, just as pointedly as he does. She gives as good as she gets, even though she’s not afraid to be vulnerable, or petty, or hurt. What makes me so fond of Ellie is that she’s such a fully-realized character. She’s helpless not because she’s a woman, or of low intellect, but simply because she’s never had the chance to help herself. And through the course of the trip you see her rely on her wits, charm and intelligence just as much as Peter.
It kind of blows me away to realize just how influential this movie was; a lot of the mannerisms for Bugs Bunny was based on things that happened in the film, and apparently sales of undershirts plummeted because of one scene of Clark Gable undressing. Beyond the legends about that, you just see this movie embedded in the DNA of every quippy romantic comedy that’s come out since, and even though they try to capture the interplay of Gable and Colbert, they can’t quite catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.
Another great thing about this film is the variety of people they meet in their travels. I’ve taken the Greyhound bus across the country before, and it turned out to be a lot less fun than what was depicted. I swore I’d never get on a bus again to travel long distances after that trip, but this movie made me seriously reconsider that. There’s a love of people that suffuses itself through the energy of the film; even though its leads have many bad qualities, you never once think of them as bad people. That attitude carries on right down the line, from annoying fellow passenger Oscar Shapely to severe helicopter father Mr. Andrews. I’m sure much of that comes from Capra, who somehow makes his affection for Americana earnestly without coming over too corny about it.
This is a grand romantic comedy that’s about more than two people finding each other and falling in love. It’s about how discovering the world outside yourself makes you a more complete person; both Ellie and Peter are trapped in different myopic world views, and it’s only when they open up to one another that they learn how to get out of their own way. Alone they’re reasonably intelligent, headstrong people who can’t quite catch a break. Together, they’re an unstoppable bickering force. The world — and the audience — is in the palm of their hands.