It was a film made in just four weeks, and on a shoestring. Clark Gable was forced to star in it as a punishment, according to some accounts, and turned up drunk and angry to meet director Frank Capra. At the end of filming, Claudette Colbert said “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” Yet, somehow, It Happened One Night, the tale of a runaway heiress who joins forces with an unemployed journalist on a long-distance bus trip, ended up as a smash hit and multi-Oscar winner. It touched a nerve in the Great Depression – and still does so now, in our own hard times nearly 80 years on. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen during a rerelease in the UK, and the audience’s reaction showed just how well this early screwball tale of a couple travelling on a late-night bus has worn.
The legend has it that Capra came across the original short story, Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams, by chance in a copy of Cosmopolitan. He asked Columbia to buy it for him, which the studio managed to do cheaply, and he and writer Robert Riskin then set about turning it into a script. However, they quickly found that nobody had much faith in the project. Robert Montgomery was originally offered the part of the hero, down-at-heel, hard-drinking journalist Peter Warne, but turned it down because he felt there had already been ‘too many bus pictures’. Gable was loaned by MGM in his place, possibly as a punishment – he had recently been ill and taken time off, which didn’t go down well in that high-pressure era, as well as asking for more money. The role of the heroine, spoilt Ellen “Ellie” Andrews, was rejected by Miriam Hopkins, Myrna Loy and Margaret Sullavan in turn. Constance Bennett, Bette Davis and Carole Lombard were also suggested and then fell by the wayside for various reasons. Colbert only accepted the part at the last minute, in return for a bumper pay cheque and the promise of a quick shoot.
However, as with so many classic films where there were changes of casting, it is hard to imagine that anyone could have played the roles as well as the couple who were finally chosen. Colbert’s air of wistful elegance is perfect for bored rich girl Ellie, while Gable got the chance to be more boyish, comic and mischievous in It Happened One Night than he had done in any of his roles to date, showing a new side to his talents. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra says he felt this was the only film where Gable got the chance to play himself – and he certainly gives the impression on screen that he is having a lot of fun. Riskin’s script is very sharp, but he is said to have left room for Capra to improvise, and the whole film does feel fresh, natural and not too heavily scripted.
This was a film released in the last days of the pre-Code period, before the powers-that-be cracked down on any suggestive scenes. It’s said that Gable and Colbert did not get on, and fell out continually on set, but on screen they have a great chemistry and easiness together, with plenty of sexy moments – above all, the scenes where they rent a room together but chastely divide it in two with a makeshift barrier which Gable nicknames ‘the walls of Jericho’. Gable set millions swooning (and supposedly damaged sales of undershirts and vests) in the scene where he takes off his shirt to get ready for bed. Colbert refused to strip on camera, but the sight of her underwear being draped over the barrier as she undressed out of sight was possibly even more suggestive than a strip scene, and later there is the famous hitch-hiking scene where she hitches up her skirt and shows a leg in order to stop a car. Colbert at first refused to do this scene, but then decided she didn’t want a body double brought in, and would rather do it herself after all. The supporting cast is also excellent, especially Roscoe Karns as lecherous fellow-passenger Oscar Shapeley, and Alan Hale as the annoying motorist who stops for Colbert.
In his early films, Capra constantly puts the focus on outsiders and people forced to pretend to be something they are not, such as the fake faith healer in The Miracle Woman and the street pedlar desperately imitating a society matron in Lady for a Day, the film he made just before It Happened One Night. The couple at the centre of It Happened are both outsiders, too, and both putting on a brave face. Peter might swagger around, as only Gable could swagger, but the fact is that he has been sacked from his job as a journalist while on assignment in Miami, is down to his last ten-dollar bill, and needs to make the long journey back to New York in search of work.
Ellie, too, is running away from a different kind of failure. The original short story made this young heiress merely spoilt, but a friend of Capra’s suggested she should instead be a character who is fed up with her life of privilege and trying to escape. This makes her far more sympathetic and interesting. Yes, she often shows her unthinking assumption of entitlement, for instance by airily assuming the bus will wait for her if she is late (it doesn’t), or trying to spend the little money she has left on a box of chocolates. But she is interested in the people around her and ready to learn, even if it means queuing outside for a shower in a hut and waiting her turn behind a group of poor women. She wears only two dresses in the whole film, including her wedding dress (but not including the dressing gown and pyjamas she borrows from Peter).
Indeed, the film is largely set in the world of people with no money, travelling long distances by bus, stopping for brief snatched meals they can hardly afford, and spending nights in shadowy transit camps of cheap cabins. It is more the world of a pre-Code drama, such as the gritty Warner melodramas of the period, than of a typical romantic comedy. Colbert worried this might lead the film to flop, commenting: “It was right in the middle of the Depression. People needed fantasy, they needed splendor and glamour, and Hollywood gave it to them. And here we were, looking a little seedy and riding on our bus.” (This comment is quoted in Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G Harris.) But I think this grounding in reality is just what gives the film its spark, as this beautiful couple refuse to be beaten, and are willing to sleep in the hay, live on raw carrots or share one egg between them for a meagre breakfast. In one plot twist, they even pretend to be a typical married couple with little money, and have a fake screaming row. Embarrassed officials look away, assuming they must be genuine.
Food and money loom large all through the film, with one touching scene on the bus where a woman faints in her seat. Her teenage son confesses that they have eaten nothing since yesterday, after spending all their money on their tickets. Ellie gives them what turns out to be all the money Peter has, and he plays along, hollowly boasting “I’m a millionaire”. This scene is beautifully understated compared to some later heavy-handed scenes of hungry people in Capra films, like the weeping gunman who targets Gary Cooper in Mr Deeds Goes to Town. Here, the scene is passed over quickly – but it still makes its mark, and shows just what the reality is that our glamorous couple are passing through.
However, despite much of the movie being set in a bleak world not all that far removed from The Grapes of Wrath, it begins and ends with glimpses of wealth and glamour. At the start, heiress Ellie is seen pining away in the lap of luxury. The film opens with her on board a yacht, with her father, played by permanently worried comedy stalwart Walter Connolly, trying to bully her into eating a fancy meal. Ellie has gone on her own version of hunger strike because she wants to be allowed to go away and join her new husband, pilot ‘King’ Westley (Jameson Thomas). He’s a man she hardly knows, but who hastily wooed and married her in secret with an eye to her fortune, though it is made clear the marriage hasn’t been consummated. The memory of Ellie turning up her nose at fine food in this opening sequence becomes increasingly ironic in retrospect, as she goes hungry for much of the film after her money is stolen. But the opening does show that, even if she is spoilt, she is also being suffocated by her sheltered life – and, when her father slaps her on the face, in a shocking moment, it is easy to understand why she throws herself overboard and swims away from her rich life.
At the end of the film she runs away again, fleeing her own grand official wedding to Westley in order to go back to Peter. I find it slightly odd that we never see the couple reunited at the end of the film – but that scene of Colbert running away in her wedding dress is unforgettable, and was surely the inspiration for all the runaway brides who followed in later films. This was a hugely influential film in general, leaving its stamp on everything from Bugs Bunny (he allegedly copied Gable’s chomping of carrots while talking) to later reporter-and-heiress/princess romantic comedies like Roman Holiday. But, although its influence on later movies is fascinating, it is most of all worth watching for itself, and for the unforgettable combination of Colbert and Gable.
This piece first appeared during the Comedy Countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website. Most of the photos are gratefully taken from Doctor Macro.