It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

It Happened 1It 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.

Gable and Colbert on the bus

Gable and Colbert on the bus

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.

Sales of vests were about to plummet, allegedly

Sales of vests were about to plummet, allegedly

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.

Sheltering out in the fields

Sheltering out in the fields

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.

Waiting for a lift

Waiting for a lift

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.

It Happened 5

Living at close quarters

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.

Colbert in the famous wedding dress scene

Colbert in the famous wedding dress scene

29 thoughts on “It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

  1. I love this movie! It’s my 2nd favorite Capra film (behind Deeds) and my 3rd favorite film of the 1930’s (behind Deeds and GWTW). There are so many terrific moments in it…and that coming from someone who doesn’t overly enjoy comedic films!

    Gable and Colbert were terrific together. I really wish they had been paired more often. As far as I know, this and “Boom Town” were their only pairings.

    In September, my daughter is taking a trip. She’ll be flying into one airport, flying home from another, and getting to the return airport, will require a 3-4 hour bus ride. We laughed about it, as we realized she had a chance to somewhat “live” this movie. I told her to be sure to watch this the night before getting on the bus. Too bad Clark Gable won’t be along for the ride!

    Terrific review of a fantastic film, Judy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patti, my favourite Capra film is probably ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, but I love this one too, and he’s a director who has really grown on me – as a fan of pre-Codes, I also love the early films he made with Barbara Stanwyck, like ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’. I also tend to go more for drama, but have been getting more interested in comedies over the last year or two.

      That sounds like quite a trip which your daughter is planning – I hope it goes more smoothly than the bus ride in the movie, and that it isn’t too exhausting! Thanks very much for the kind comment.


  2. Lovely review. Haven’t seen this film in a long time. I’m a big Colbert fan, not so much Gable,but they made a good team and it is so well written.


    • Thanks, Vienna – I love Colbert too, and agree she made a great team with Gable. And yes, the script is great.


  3. Sharp dialogue and the wonderful performances by Gable and Colbert really make this film a joy. Fabulous that you had a chance to see this on the big screen!


  4. “Food and money loom large all through the film, with one touching scene on the bus where a woman faints in her seat.”

    Fantastic point Judy! And a very persuasive comparison with THE GRAPES OF WRATH as well. This is one of the classic romantic comedies, and one that has entered the history books in the Oscar annals, with an achievement matched four decades later with ONE FLEW OVER THE CUKOO’S NEST. Also, as you note, Gable and Colbert have incomparable chemistry, and were honored for their efforts. Capra was to go on and make some of the greatest American films after this (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, LOST HORIZON, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) but he set the bar high here, in establishing his unique style that became so identifiable with film fans.

    One of your Hall of Fame pieces Judy.


    • Sam, thank you very much for the over-kind praise! I am getting increasingly fond of early Capra and seeing how his style evolved, although I do also greatly admire the more famous later films which you mention here. Interesting to realise that ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next’ was the film which matched the Oscars achievement of ‘It Happened One Night’, when you think how different the films are in every other way. Thanks again.


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  6. Judy, it must have been a great experience to see this on the big screen – I envy you. I always find it interesting to see how audiences react to the classics these days – we’re fortunate to have lots of old movies run in the outdoor theaters here in Athens in the summer – and mostly the response seems to be positive.

    Personally, I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan of Colbert. I’ve always found her a little distant and remote, and I guess prim. Still, she was very good in this film and played well off Gable. Now, I would consider myself a fan of Gable’s – I liked his humorous toughness and the fact he didn’t actually seem to take himself all that seriously. I can see how he might not have gotten along with Colbert, but none of that shows on screen.

    I also think the film ranks among Capra’s best, at least it’s one I can happily return to. I guess I’d place it alongside It’s a Wonderful Life & Lost Horizon as representative of the director at his best.


    • Colin, seeing an old movie in an outdoor theatre in Athens sounds like a truly great experience. I’d be interested to hear more about which films you have seen in this atmosphere.

      Interesting, I really like Colbert and find her witty rather than remote, but we can’t all be fans of the same actors and I’m glad you like her in this film anyway. I do agree that she and Gable play well off one another and I like your description of Gable showing ‘humorous toughness’ – that sums it up perfectly. Definitely agree that this is one of Capra’s best. Thanks very much for your comment.


  7. Judy, I’ve almost lost count of the number of classics I’ve seen beneath the Athens stars. Lat summer I went to Gilda, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.
    In previous years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing How to Steal a Million, Sunset Boulevard and a whole raft of Hitchcock movies – Vertigo, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Dial M for Murder and so on.

    Summer evenings here are ideal for viewing movies outdoors, and some of the theaters have a real atmosphere. There’s one in particular, in Thessio, that’s just beautiful. It’s big and well designed, and has the ruins of the Acropolis just off to the left as you face the screen. Watching a classic movie on a moonlit evening with the Parthenon peeking above the perimeter is pretty magical.


    • All I can say is, wow! This certainly does sound like a magical way to spend an evening. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film in the open air at all, and certainly not in such great surroundings. That cinema in Thessio sounds wonderful. I hope you get to enjoy more classics this summer, Colin.


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    • Sorry in failing to reply to this comment – the year has been a bit of a blur so far. I do agree there are many similarities between this film and ‘Roman Holiday’, and love them both.Thanks so much for the comment!


  12. I absolutely love this movie and it’s on a list of my favorites. I’m a big Gable fan and the chemistry here is just sensational. It’s always a fun movie to watch and it never gets old.


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