Old movies: celebrating It Happened One Night

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night
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This year’s Academy Awards may be over, but in our old movies column we look at a classic film that won big – It Happened One Night. 


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This last weekend the Academy Awards took place in Los Angeles. You may have heard of them. The ceremony, which took place at the Dolby Theatre, was a celebration of the best films from the previous year. The night saw favourites such as Brendon Fraser and All Quiet On The Western Front scooping up major awards.

The big winner of the evening was surreal comedy Everything, Everywhere All At Once which took home, Best Actress for Michelle Yeoh, Best Supporting Actress for Jamie Lee Curtis, Best Supporting Actor for Ke Huy Quan, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for the Daniels, Best Editing for Paul Rogers and, ultimately, walked away with Best Picture. Truly, It Happened One Night.

Oh, apologies for the ham-handed segue into the film I really want to talk about. With Everything Everywhere All At Once scooping up the big awards, it reminded me of other big winners across history. Though EEAAO may not have won Best Actor, it still scooped up the acting Academy Awards, plus direction and screenplay.

Throughout the history of the Oscars, there have only three films that have walked away with the five major Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. The Silence Of The Lambs and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are among the three. However, the first ever movie to do so was Frank Capra’s screwball comedy It Happened One Night.

Released in 1934, and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night revolves around spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews, who runs away from her father’s fortune to elope. Reporter Peter Wayne, who has just been unscrupulously fired from his job, winds up on the same Greyhound bus, heading to New York City.

Recognising her immediately, whilst also recognising how she could help get his job back, Peter suggests that he aid her in running away to her fiancé, if she’ll give him the scoop of the century. Of course, their journey is not plain sailing and soon the chalk-and-cheese pairing wind up in a whole bunch of scrapes!

I wrote last month about my favourite on-screen couples and featured Gable and Colbert. This romantic comedy is aided by the fact that these two sizzle with chemistry. It practically burns holes in the celluloid. Like many screwball comedies that came after, this relies solely on the work of the actors and how they can turn their exasperation at one another into romance. If you’ve ever been a fan of the enemies to lovers convention, then It Happened One Night is crucial. It even includes the characters being forced into a hotel room with one another, having to pretend to be married.

Claudette Colbert sat on a train in It Happened One Night.
Thanks to Robert Riskin’s snappy script, adapting the screenplay from Samuel Hopkins Adams’s novel Night Bus, Gable and Colbert’s characters are whippet smart with one another – sparring off with their quips and insults. It’s hilarious to see them tear at one another whilst also getting into all sorts of hijinks.

Frank Capra is fantastic as the director here. He races through the story and imbues it with a great liveliness. The characters and their situations – even as it unfolds ludicrously – feel real and it’s thanks to Capra’s smart direction. Especially as it isn’t quick all the time – in fact, Capra makes sure to slow down and allow this romantic atmosphere to develop. A particular scene with a clothes line, and its echo later in the film, is thriving with sexual tension.

Claudette Colbert, after filming, complained that she had just finished “the worst picture in the world” not knowing that It Happened One Night would propel her to stardom. Not only did it scoop up huge Academy Awards, but it influenced a whole sub-genre of rom-coms, sparking classics such as Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and more. It was so significant that Clark Gable chewing on carrots may have inspired Friz Freleng to create a famous Bugs Bunny characteristic.

If we’re talking about longevity, I’d be remiss not to mention the most iconic scene. Whilst trying to hitchhike, Peter teaches Ellie how best to use your thumb to herald a ride. However, after he fails, multiple times, Ellie decides to give it a try – only she uses her slender legs. It works immediately. It’s a brilliant sequence which has been parodied throughout history.

It Happened One Night delights cinema lovers even now. It is a wonderful, flighty film that sparkles with wit and romance. Powered by two incredible leads and heralded as a one of the finest comedies of all time, it’s no wonder that it won so big at the Academy Awards!

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