Sunday, November 20, 2011

It Happened One Night (1934)

“Let’s get this over with.” Those are reportedly the word’s star Clark Gable stated when he first arrived to the set of It Happened One Night, and the overall sentiment of a small film that would quietly go on to become the most honored film of 1934, and one of the best American films of all time. It was a film made by one of Hollywood’s poverty row studios, Columbia Pictures, with stars that had no faith in the film, and in many cases hated making it. They were there only there to fulfill contracts and collect paychecks. When the dust settled and the film was distributed to theaters this sleeper movie turned the business upside-down, become the most heralded film of the year, becoming the first picture to win the “grand slam” at the Academy Awards a year later.

It Happened One Night is a romantic comedy about two unlikely opposites, one a spoiled runaway and the other an out of work reporter, who share a road trip together running into many obstacles along the way, ultimately falling in love with each other. Ellie (Claudette Colbert) is a rebellious, spoiled heiress determined to runaway and live with her new fortune-hunting husband, despite the wishes of her father. Peter is a newly laid off newspaper reporter who discovers his latest juicy story in Ellie who tries desperately to travel the great distance to New York in secret. Peter makes the deal to help her get to destination in exchange for the exclusive story rights, instead of turning her over to her father for a handsome reward. Their adventures north have the couple many times stranded with no money to get to New York, but with Peter’s street knowledge and charm and Ellie’s beauty and determination the two make it to the Big Apple, but not before they fall in love. When Ellie believes Peter is set to turn her in for the reward she flees Peter reluctantly to her father’s side, revealing she in fact does not love the man she married. Peter leaves his chance at a large sum of money for a news story to be with Ellie, winning over for good the heart of Ellie and her father.

The picture is a wonderful road trip movie of a classic odd couple. Colbert plays the delightfully rebellious daughter who thinks she knows what she wants, until she steps out on her own. Gable is the man’s man who mouth and wit may get him into trouble, but will never step down from a challenge, determined to get through anything. Filled with humor, the picture is a piece of charming fun. Even though the stars of the picture are said to have never really wanted to be in this film, they carry with them a great energy as the characters play off each other. The film is rather quaint, but the more and more you let yourself get lost into it the more entertaining it becomes. You watch as these two quarrel as they attempt to accomplish their tasks together, ending in a love story with two people you root for.

To direct this motion picture was Frank Capra, Columbia’s brightest and most bankable director. Columbia Studios lived on the so called “poverty row.” Hollywood had its major studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, and RKO), who vertically owned everything about their pictures, from writers to the theaters that showcased the pictures, and everything in between. Poverty row were studios who, very much like today’s post-studio system production companies, simply produced the pictures and distributed them to independent movie houses. They did not receive all the extra revenue of monopolizing everything about their films. But at Columbia Capra was a shining beacon that stood out from these smaller lesser noticed celluloid workshops. Once Capra had worked for MGM, but he enjoyed the freedom of the smaller studio, who gave him more creative control. Columbia would invest in the bankability that Capra had, also producing quality pictures that made a decent profit. In 1933 Capra got his first bit of notoriety with his film Lady for a Day which was nominated for best picture as well as his own nomination for directing.

Frank Capra got quite a bit out of his actors, primarily known for using improvising to get the most natural performance out of talent and then being a master editor. Capra’s edited to the energy of the picture and with It Happened One Night the film is rather faced paced with a screwball comedy mentality. He encouraged fun on the set between Gable and Colbert which lent a hand to the natural energy they would share on camera. This film marked great new beginning to the career of Capra as a major movie director, winning his first Academy Award for his craft, number one of three he would win in his lifetime.

The stars of the picture were the unlikely couple of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, both who were not the first choices for their respective roles. Gable was a masculine star from the MGM lot and when MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer saw his $2000 a week actor sitting idle, he lent him to Columbia for $2500 for a $500 profit. Gable was not excited about working on this small Columbia picture, as most stars saw working for such a studio to be a “humbling” experience. The same can be said for his female co-star Colbert, who after five other actresses turned down the role, took the part of Ellie only with the promise that her salary was doubled her usual amount and the film was shot within four weeks so she could go on her pre-arranged vacation. Colbert was not a fan of working with Capra from bad experiences she had when she first broke into movies on a Capra set. Capra adhered to her needs, doubling her rate and made the movie within schedule to please his temperamental starlet.

The famous hitchhiking scene where Ellie gets them a ride.
Both stars disliked the script form the beginning. Neither thought much of Columbia and what the film would do for their careers other than supply a paycheck. Capra would do his best to lighten the mood on set, helping them built a good working relationship. While filming was over Colbert, still dissatisfied, would proclaim that she “just finished the worst movie in the world.” This would be thrown back into her face come the next year when she along with her co-star, Gable, were awarded the Oscars for best acting respectfully. Colbert was so sure she would not win for her acting that she originally was not going to attend the event, but was pulled away from leaving for a vacation by the producer, accepting the award wearing her traveling suit for the journey. 1934 would be the greatest year for Colbert as with It Happened One Night and the later release of Cleopatra, where she starred as the title role, she would become one of the highest draws in all of Hollywood, soon to be the highest paid talent in the industry, as well as being the number one box office draw.

When the picture was first released not much was made about quiet opening of this film. It wasn’t until the film had been out for a while and was making its way to second run movie houses that audiences and critics started to notice the picture. Soon word of mouth would spread about this Columbia Pictures film and ticket sales soared, launching a brand new name for the small studio on poverty row.

The picture had a lasting impact on film. It Happened One Night would be heavily award for its greatness. Aside from the Academy awards for Capra directing, and Colbert and Gable respectively for acting, the film took home statues for best adapted screenplay, and for the big one, best picture of the year. It was the first clean sweep of the five major awards by one picture, a feat not matched until 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In 1993 the Library of Congress would add the film to their list of film’s to preserve. And the film is all over many AFI top lists including: #3 top romantic comedy, #38 top love story, #8 top comedy, on the list for top films of all time (#35 in 1997, and #46 when the list was revised in 2007). Not bad for a film whose major players had little faith in. This picture alone gave its studio the respect and notoriety that it never received before, pushing Columbia to the forefront of the Hollywood news at its time.

The film went beyond celluloid and affected pop culture on a major level as well. Animator Friz Freleng was heavily inspired by the film, using many character aspects throughout the picture to create the much beloved Busy Bunny persona. From the side character, Oscar Shipley, continuously using the term “doc,” Gable eating carrots and talking fast, to a fictional character referred to named Busy Dooly, these tidbits inspired Freleng to generate the wise-cracking rabbit of the cartoon world. Another impact the film had in the culture was the dramatic decrease in sales of men’s undershirts. This was due to the difficulty Clark Gable was having to keep up the timing of his fast paced monologue in a scene while undressing, therefore he did the scene without the undershirt to eliminate the oddness of a pause in needing to remove the article of clothing, and as soon as his bare chest hit the screen down went the demand for the shirts.

It Happened One Night is one of the most copied films of all time. Several pictures, filmmakers, writers, and nameless others are inspired by or flat out steal ideas for this very timeless film. From Laurel and Hardy to Mel Brooks, from radio to film to television, from Hollywood to Bollywood, this film has be copied and stolen from innumerable times. It is a rarity in history to have such a lasting impact like the one this film had and it is very refreshing to see it come from such a humble picture as this one. It Happened One Night is just plain good cinema that has and will continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.

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