AND THE WINNER IS... IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT
Updated: Feb 20
THE FIRST ROM-COM
The seventh film to win best picture is It Happened One Night from 1934.
The film was directed by Frank Capra and Produced by Columbia Pictures, the poverty row of Hollywood Studios.
The picture was filmed between November 13 and December 23, 1933.
It Happened One Night, starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, but was budgeted at $325K so no one expected much, especially after the premiere. The film premiered so poorly, it wasn’t held over for a second week, as was the custom with premieres.
When It Happened One Night hit the rest of the country though, it became the sleeper hit of 1934 making $2.5 million at the box office generating a return of $2.175 million, a fortune for a studio known as "poverty row."
Held over in some places for a year, It Happened One Night, held the record for “longest number of days in theaters” for years.
In 1933, Columbia had never won an Academy Award. Most of their pictures were low budget, low quality, and low rent.
They started out as CBC Film Sales in New York. The company was run by Jack & Harry Cohn and their friend Joe Brandt. Thus the CBC Cohn, Brandt, Cohn.
The quality of the company’s pictures didn’t improve much after moving to Hollywood, where they leased a studio on Gower Street. They were so poor the joke around town was that CBC stood for Corned Beef and Cabbage.
Even after the name change to Columbia in 1924, their reputation remained the same. The joke just became “Columbia the germ of the Ocean.” Louis B. Mayer referred to it as Siberia. He used it to punish actors, when they didn’t behave. He’d send them to Siberia, by loaning them out to Harry Cohn.
In an effort to improve that “corn beef and cabbage” image Columbia began making more serious pictures, and bringing in quality directors. One of the first was Frank Capra.
Francesca Rosario Capra was born poor, and raised in the Sicilian ghetto of Los Angeles. He wanted out - trying education, prizefighting, bootlegging, even running a con game as a means of escape. Eventually he settled on what he called the "magic carpet" of filmmaking, an adventure he compared to riding a meteor.
Capra had directed his first short film - “The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House,” in 1922, moving on to Mack Sennett’s studio as a gag writer, where he began directing features in 1926.
His first film for Harry Cohn was That Certain Thing, in 1928.
Finding a home at Columbia, Capra - in quick succession - directed Platinum Blonde, with Jean Harlow in 1931, and American Madness, with Walter Huston & Pat O’Brien in 1932. Those two successes were followed by a long line of comedy-dramas that would come to be associated with the moniker of the “Capraesque” film. The style would become so ubiquitous that it would eventually become known as "Capra Corn."
The year before It Happened One Night, Capra had directed Lady For A Day, based on Damon Runyon’s – “Madame La Gimp.”
Lady For A Day, was nominated for Best Picture but lost out to Cavalcade. By the end of 1934, that would all change. In the moment though, critics and studio execs, dismissed It Happened One Night, as just another bus film?
LAUNCHING A GENRE
It Happened One Night, is considered – along with Howard Hawks – “Twentieth Century,” as the first of the screwball comedies. A genre characterized by an unlikely “meet cute” – followed by a couple at odds – until the denouement - when they finally get together.
It Happened One Night invented that that story structure, and it still survives today. Exactly the same plot device can be seen in When Harry Met Sally – and You’ve Got Mail which is a remake of an earlier film called The Shop Around the Corner, from 1940.
FINDING THE STORY
Director Frank Capra had read a short story in Cosmo, called “The Night Bus.” He convinced studio head Harry Cohn it would make a good movie, so they bought the rights from author Samuel Hopkins Adams for $5,000.
SCREENWRITER ROBERT RISKIN
Capra and Columbia hired Robert Riskin to write the script. Little is really known about the intensely private Riskin. He did very few interviews – and those were brief.
He was born in 1897 on New York’s lower east side, and was married to Fay Wray of King Kong fame.
Capra biographer Joseph McBride, called Riskin “short and streetwise,” reporting that as a young boy he’d sneak into vaudeville theaters and write down the jokes. The experience clearly served him well. His scenes and dialogue are still quick-witted and satirical nearly ninety years later.
Another thing Riskin excelled at was getting around the censors. It Happened One Night, has a taut sexuality, brought about entirely through the use of innuendo.
According to Frank Capra Jr., Riskin and his father would head to Palm Springs, write in the morning, then play in the afternoon. The process worked, the pair collaborated on a number of hit films, including Platinum Blond, American Madness, Meet John Doe, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.
COMEDY OR REALITY?
According to Frank Capra Jr. the making of It Happened One Night, was a comic opera in and of itself.
At first they just couldn’t make their little "bus picture" work. Part of the problem was that Columbia didn’t want to do the picture at all. Cohn didn’t think it would make any money.
The studio didn’t like the first draft of the script. They thought it was trivial and stale. They didn’t yet get that it would create a new genre of film - because at the time the rom-com effectively didn’t exist.
To soothe studio fears, Capra brought in another writer friend - Miles Connoly, who contributed some new ideas, one of which was to make the heiress more "bored," and less angry – reasoning that more people could relate to "bored" than they could to "heiress." They also made the leading man a reporter in the next draft.
Columbia still didn’t like it but Capra really wanted to make the film so Cohn relented.
With a green light they started work. But Columbia – the poverty row studio – didn’t have any big stars of their own - so they began looking for loan-outs.
Capra originally wanted MGMs Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy, but both were unavailable.
To Harry Cohn’s surprise Louis B. Mayer offered Clark Gable instead. CLARK GABLE
Gable wanted a raise from MGM, and went on a little studio strike. When he didn’t get the pay bump he wanted, he checked himself into a hospital for exhaustion.
Louis B. Mayer decided to send him to Siberia as punishment. CLAUDETTE COLBERT
Capra had a hard time casting - Elly Andrews - the heiress character. He was turned down by Mariam Hopkins, Margaret Sullivan, Constance Bennett, and even Claudette Colbert, who wanted to go on vacation instead of making another film.
Instead of turning him down out right, Colbert made him an offer she was certain he would reject. Her price was fifty grand for four weeks – twice her normal salary. To her surprise Capra and Cohen accepted.
But to get Colbert, the production had to completely shoot out her scenes in four weeks - beginning a couple of days after the agreement was sealed.
As a consequence of the tight shooting schedule, the production didn’t build many sets, electing to shoot mostly on location. One regular locale was Busch Gardens in Pasadena. Another outcome of the tight schedule was - Capra didn’t shoot much coverage, often just staying in a master shot, then moving on. This has the effect of making the writing - an equal partner with the filmmaking.
The famous bus scene - with the passengers singing “Man On The Flying Trapeze” - was written to be sung by just a few people, but during rehearsals the extras on the bus kept joining in on the chorus. Capra quickly saw an opportunity, rounded up a bunch of cameras, and shot the scene live – so he could get multiple angels of matching coverage from a single take. In the end this quick shooting style, gave the film a frantic pace that appealed to audiences, and changed the timing of films forever.
When he cut the daily footage on a Movieola – which has a small screen – the pace felt fine, but when he saw it on the big screen - it dragged. Capra began pushing the speed of the dialogue on the set – so it would feel right on screen. The fast-talking style became a staple of the rom-com genre.
When shooting started, Gable wasn’t happy about being loaned out, but he quickly warmed up to Capra, and the pair ended up having a great time making the film.
Claudette Colbert however, remained difficult throughout. When Capra asked her to expose her legs for the hitchhiking scene, the actress flatly refused. It was only after Capra hired a body double for the close up, that she changed her mind, saying - her legs were as good as anybody’s.
The day after principal photography ended, she told her friends It Happened One Night, was “the worst picture in the world.” She’d said something similar to Gable on the set as well. Gable protested – saying he thought it was a fine picture.
In a twist of fate - the fact that Colbert was so annoyed about having to make this film, played right into the personality of her spoiled brat/heiress character. It may be the first case of accidental method acting.
However it came about – the performance earned Colbert a Best Actress statue.
When Colbert – accepted the award she said a simple “thank you,” and turned to rush off the stage. She then turned back - stepped to the mic and said - “I owe this to Frank Capra.”
Colbert made another significant contribution to the picture as well. She was concerned about the image of undressing onscreen, with Gable in the same room. Her solution was to put up a rope, and drape a blanket over it for her character’s privacy.
The concept became the "Walls of Jericho" - a running gag throughout the second and third acts - and the topper of the movie's final scene.
THE UNDERSHIRT SCANDAL
Gable started a fashion trend in the film. In the roadside motel as he undresses, he removes his shirt to reveal he doesn’t have on an undershirt. Who cares right? Well it created quite a stir.
The fact that he didn’t have on an undershirt was purely for functional reasons. The scene was taking too long when he had to take off another item of clothing, so Capra just did away with the undershirt. No worries. The censors didn’t complain.
When the film came out however, it enraged undershirt manufacturers, who ended up filing a lawsuit, alleging that it caused industry sales to plummet. There are reports that this is urban legend, but it’s included in material from Columbia, accompanying the film, and Capra’s son mentions it as well.
COMEDY STORYTELLING REINVENTED
It Happened One Night was the first feature length comedy. It was believed that comedies needed to be shorter to keep audiences interested. But, this film had something a traditional comedy film didn’t. It had characters the audience cared about, and those characters had a story arc.
Riskin’s innuendo - and the story tool of insuring that the closer the heroes got together, the further they were pushed apart by events conspiring against them, built an incredible sexual tension.
It made the audience want the couple to get together, but showed them no possible way that was that going to happen – considering that they were both on a mission to get her to her soon to be husband.
Regardless - it kept people in their seats, and even though it was long for a comedy, theatergoers often commented on the films quick pace.
There are some legendary comedy scenes in the film.
Gable's dissertation on piggyback riding and hitchhiking, keeps the characters real and the story moving forward.
An unpublished memoir suggests that Fritz Freleng – may have based Bugs Bunny on characters from It Happened One Night. Specifically, the character Oscar Shapely – who calls Gable "Doc "throughout the film. There’s also Gable talking with a mouthful of carrots.
It Happened One Night, won Columbia its first Academy Award.
The film was nominated in all five major categories - picture - director - actor - actress and screenplay. It won all five, a feat only matched twice in history – with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs.
The story goes - that at the Oscar® awards ceremony that year, the presenter would open up the envelope to announce the winner, and get out only the word “It” - when the audience would finish with a grand unison “happened one night,” as if it were predestined.
The film has been as high as number 3 on the AFI’s best comedies list, and number 35 on 1998’s top hundred movies of all time.
The comedy of Riskin and Capra still works today. If some of it seems a bit predictable to modern audiences – it’s because so many other films have copied if for the last 90 years.