It Happened One Night is a 1934 American romantic comedy film with elements of screwball comedy directed by Frank Capra, in which a pampered socialite (Claudette Colbert) tries to get out from under her father's thumb, and falls in love with a roguish reporter (Clark Gable). The plot was based on the August 1933 short story "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams, which provided the shooting title. One of the last romantic comedies created before the MPAA began enforcing the 1930 production code in 1934, the film was released on February 22, 1934.
The film was the first to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), a feat that would not be matched until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and later by The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In 1993, It Happened One Night was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2013, the film underwent an extensive restoration.
Spoiled heiress Ellen "Ellie" Andrews has eloped with pilot and fortune-hunter "King" Westley against the wishes of her extremely wealthy father, Alexander, who wants to have the marriage annulled. Jumping ship in Florida, she runs away, boarding a bus to New York City, to reunite with her new spouse, when she meets fellow bus passenger Peter Warne, a freshly out-of-work newspaper reporter. Soon Warne recognizes her and gives her a choice: If she will give him an exclusive on her story, he will help her reunite with Westley. If not, he will tell her father where she is. Ellie agrees to the first choice.
Soon penniless, Ellie has to rely completely on Peter. As they go through several adventures together, Ellie loses her initial disdain for him and begins to fall in love. When they have to hitchhike, Peter claims to be an expert on the subject. As car after car passes them by, he eventually ends up thumbing his nose at them. The sheltered Ellie then shows him how it is done. She stops the next car, driven by Danker, dead in its tracks by lifting up her skirt and showing off a shapely leg.
When they stop for a break, Danker tries to drive off with their luggage. Peter chases him down and takes his car. One night, nearing the end of their journey together, Ellie confesses her love to Peter. Peter mulls over what she has said, decides he loves her too, and leaves to make arrangements after she has fallen asleep. When the owners of the motel in which they are staying notice that Peter's car is gone, they roust Ellie out of bed and kick her out.
Believing Peter has deserted her, Ellie calls her father, who is so relieved to get her back that he agrees to let her marry Westley. Meanwhile, Peter has obtained money from his editor to marry Ellie, but as he drives back to tell her, they pass each other on the road. Although Ellie has no desire to be with Westley, she believes Peter has betrayed her for the reward money, so once home she agrees to have a second, formal wedding and commit to her life with Westley.
Ellie tries to pretend that nothing has happened, but she is unable to fool her father. On her wedding day, she finally reveals the whole story (as she sees it). When Peter comes to Ellie's home, Mr. Andrews offers him the reward money, but Peter insists on being paid only his expenses: a paltry $39.60. When Ellie's father presses him for an explanation of his odd behavior, Peter admits he loves Ellie (although he thinks he is out of his mind to do so), then storms out. King Westley arrives for his wedding via Kellett K-3 Autogiro NC12691.
At the wedding ceremony, as Mr. Andrews walks his daughter down the aisle, he reveals Peter's refusal of the reward money to Ellie and quietly encourages her to run off again, telling her that her car is out back for a quick get-away. At the point where she is to say "I do", she makes up her mind. She runs off to find Peter. Her pleased father pays Westley off, enabling Ellie to marry Peter.
Neither Gable nor Colbert was the first choice to play the lead roles. Miriam Hopkins first rejected the part of Ellie. Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy were then offered the roles, but each turned the script down, though Loy later noted that the final story as filmed bore little resemblance to the script that she and Montgomery had been offered for their perusal. Margaret Sullavan also rejected the part. Constance Bennett was willing to play the role if she could produce the film herself; however, Columbia Pictures would not allow this. Then Bette Davis wanted the role, but was under contract with Warner Brothers and Jack Warner refused to lend her. Carole Lombard was unable to accept, because the filming schedule conflicted with that of Bolero. Loretta Young also turned it down.
Harry Cohn suggested Colbert, and she initially turned the role down. Colbert's first film, For the Love of Mike (1927), had been directed by Capra, and it was such a disaster that she vowed to never make another with him. Later on, she agreed to appear in It Happened One Night only if her salary was doubled to $50,000, and also on the condition that the filming of her role be completed in four weeks so that she could take her well-planned vacation.
According to Hollywood legend, Gable was lent to Columbia Pictures, then considered a minor studio, as some kind of "punishment" for refusing a role at his own studio. This tale has been partially refuted by more recent biographies. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer did not have a project ready for Gable, and the studio was paying him his contracted salary of $2,000 per week whether he worked or not. Louis B. Mayer lent him to Columbia for $2,500 per week, hence netting MGM $500 per week while he was gone. Capra, however, insisted that Gable was a reluctant participant in the film.
Filming began in a tense atmosphere as Gable and Colbert were dissatisfied with the quality of the script. However, they established a friendly working relationship and found that the script was no worse than those of many of their earlier films. Capra understood their dissatisfaction and tried to lighten the mood by having Gable play practical jokes on Colbert, who responded with good humor.
Colbert, however, continued to show her displeasure on the set. She also initially balked at pulling up her skirt to entice a passing driver to provide a ride, complaining that it was unladylike. Upon seeing the chorus girl who was brought in as her body double, an outraged Colbert told the director, "Get her out of here. I'll do it. That's not my leg!" Through the filming, Capra claimed, Colbert "had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me," however "she was wonderful in the part." After her acceptance speech at the Oscars ceremony, she went back on stage and thanked Capra for making the film.
After filming was completed, Colbert complained to her friend, "I just finished the worst picture in the world." Capra fretted that the film was released to indifferent reviews and initially only did so-so business. Then, after it was released to the secondary movie houses, word-of-mouth began to spread and ticket sales became brisk. It turned out to be a major hit, easily Columbia's biggest hit to date.
In 1935, after her Academy Award nomination, Colbert decided not to attend the presentation, feeling confident that she would not win the award, and instead, planned to take a cross-country railroad trip. After she was named the winner, studio chief Harry Cohn sent someone to "drag her off" the train, which had not yet left the station, and take her to the ceremony. Colbert arrived wearing a two-piece traveling suit which she had the Paramount Pictures costume designer, Travis Banton, make for her trip.
The film won all five of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated:
At the 7th Academy Awards for 1934, It Happened One Night became the first film to win the "Big Five" Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing). As of 2014, only two more films have achieved this feat: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Also, It Happened One Night was the last film to win both lead acting Academy Awards until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975.
On December 15, 1996, Gable's Oscar was auctioned off to Steven Spielberg for $607,500; Spielberg promptly donated the statuette to the Motion Picture Academy. On June 9, the following year, Colbert's Oscar was offered for auction by Christie's. No bids were made for it.
American Film Institute
- 1998 AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies #35
- 2000 AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs #8
- 2002 AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions #38
- 2007 AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #46
- 2008 AFI's 10 Top 10 #3 romantic comedy
It Happened One Night was adapted as a radio play on the March 20, 1939 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater, with Colbert and Gable reprising their roles. The film was also adapted as a radio play for the January 28, 1940 broadcast of The Campbell Playhouse.
In 2013 digital restoration of the film was done by Sony Colorworks, a new master film copy was made from the original negative and scanned at 4K. The digital pictures were frame by frame digitally restored at Prasad Corporation to remove dirt, tears, scratches and other artifacts. The film was restored to its original look.
In popular culture
It Happened One Night made an immediate impact on the public. In one scene, Gable undresses for bed, taking off his shirt to reveal that he is bare-chested. An urban legend claims that, as a result, sales of men's undershirts declined noticeably. The movie also prominently features a Greyhound bus in the story, spurring interest in bus travel nationwide.
The unpublished memoirs of animator Friz Freleng mention that this was one of his favorite films. It Happened One Night has a few interesting parallels with the cartoon character Bugs Bunny, who made his first appearance six years later, and who Freleng helped develop. In the film, a minor character, Oscar Shapely, continually calls the Gable character "Doc", an imaginary character named "Bugs Dooley" is mentioned once in order to frighten Shapely, and there is also a scene in which Gable eats carrots while talking quickly with his mouth full, as Bugs does.
Joseph Stalin was a fan of the film, as was Adolf Hitler.
Parodies of the film abound. The 1937 Laurel and Hardy comedy Way Out West parodied the famous hitchhiking scene, with Stan Laurel managing to stop a stage coach using the same technique. Mel Brooks's film Spaceballs (1987) parodies the wedding scene. As she walks down the aisle to wed Prince Valium, Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is told by her father, King Roland, that Lone Starr forsook the reward for the princess's return and only asked to be reimbursed for the cost of the trip.
The film has also inspired a number of remakes, including the musicals Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) starring Ann Miller and You Can't Run Away from It (1956) starring June Allyson and Jack Lemmon, which was directed and produced by Dick Powell.
Recent films have also used familiar plot points from It Happened One Night. In Bandits, (2001), Joe Blake (Bruce Willis) erects a blanket partition between motel room beds out of respect for Kate Wheeler's (Cate Blanchett's) privacy. He remarks that he saw them do the same thing in an old movie. In Sex and the City 2, Carrie and Mr. Big watch the film (specifically the hitchhiking scene) in a hotel; later in the film Carrie uses the idea which she got from the film to get a taxi in the middle east. Also in an earlier episode of Sex and the City, Samantha mimics Claudette Colbert by showing some leg to stop a taxi. The wedding scene at the end of Heartbreaker is a reprise of the wedding scene in It Happened One Night.
This film was also remade in Bollywood twice as Chori Chori starring Raj Kapoor and Nargis and Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin starring Aamir Khan and Pooja Bhatt. The story was readapted to screen in the 2007 Kannada film Hudugaata starring Golden Star Ganesh and Rekha Vedavyas. All films became successful at the box office.
Beginning in January 2014, the comic 9 Chickweed Lane tied a story arc to It Happened One Night when one of the characters, Lt. William O'Malley, is injured during World War II and believes himself to be Peter Warne. As he sneaks through German-occupied France, several plot points run parallel to that of It Happened One Night and he believes his French contact to be Ellen Andrews.
- List of Big Five Academy Award winners and nominees
- Brown, Gene. Movie Time: A Chronology of Hollywood and the Movie Industry from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Macmillan, 1995. ISBN 0-02-860429-6.
- Capra, Frank. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. ISBN 0-306-80771-8.
- Chandler, Charlotte. The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-6208-5.
- Crick, Robert Alan. The Big Screen Comedies of Mel Brooks. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7864-4326-0.
- Harris, Warren G. Clark Gable, A Biography. London: Aurum Press, 2002. ISBN 1-85410-904-9.
- Hirschnor, Joel. Rating the Movie Stars for Home Video, TV and Cable. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International Limited, 1983. ISBN 0-88176-152-4.
- Karney, Robyn. Chronicle of the Cinema, 100 Years of the Movies. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1995. ISBN 0-7513-3001-9.
- Kotsabilas-Davis, James and Myrna Loy. Being and Becoming. New York: Primus, Donald I. Fine Inc., 1987. ISBN 1-55611-101-0.
- McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Touchstone Books, 1992. ISBN 0-671-79788-3.
- Michael, Paul, ed. The Great Movie Book: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference Guide to the Best-loved Films of the Sound Era. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1980. ISBN 0-13-363663-1.
- Shirer, William L. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941. Edison, New Jersey: BBS Publishing Corporation, 1985. ISBN 978-0-88365-922-9.
- Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987. ISBN 0-345-34453-7.
- It Happened One Night at the Internet Movie Database
- It Happened One Night at the TCM Movie Database
- It Happened One Night at the American Film Institute Catalog
- It Happened One Night at Rotten Tomatoes
- It Happened One Night at Filmsite.org
- It Happened One Night at Virtual History
- Six Screen Plays by Robert Riskin, Edited and Introduced by Pat McGilligan, Berkeley: University of California Press, c1997 1997 - Free Online - UC Press E-Books Collection
- It Happened One Night on Lux Radio Theater: March 20, 1939
- It Happened One Night on The Campbell Playhouse: January 28, 1940
- A film clip "It Happened One Night trailer (1934)" is available for free download at the Internet Archive