It Happened One Night was made in 1934 and directed by one of my favourite directors, Frank Capra. It stars Clark Gable as a washed up newspaper reporter, Peter Warne and Claudette Colbert as a spoilt and pampered heiress. Neither of the leads were enthralled about making the film, particularly Colbert who insisted before agreeing to do the film on her fee being doubled and that the shoot would last no more than 4 weeks to enable her to go on holiday. However, the film went on to be the first to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay), a feat that would take 40 years to be repeated by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and later by The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.
Claudette Colbert plays Ellen Andrews, a wilful, spoilt brat of an heiress who at the start of the film has been kidnapped by her own father, desperate to annul her recent elopement with King Wesley. This being the 30s, Colbert’s character is nothing if spirited and she manages to jump of the yacht (what else?) where she’s being held and escapes. Entitled It Happened One Night, the film actually takes place over 4 nights, as Colbert’s character travels by bus and later by car from Miami to New York to meet up with King Wesley. While en route she hooks up – at first rather unwillingly – with recently fired and rather well-oiled newspaperman, Peter Warne (Clark Gable).
At first unaware of who Colbert is, Gable’s suspicions are aroused by her haughty behaviour at the stopover in Jacksonville where Colbert’s heiress assumes the Greyhound driver will wait for her while she pops off to the Windsor Hotel. Needless to say he doesn’t and when she arrives back the bus has gone. However Gable is there along with her ticket that she rather carelessly left in the bus! Realising he knows who she is, she tells him she has to get to New York and offers him money in return for his help. Affronted by the fact that she has tried to buy him off, he accuses her of being a “spoilt brat of a rich father” and that she thinks money can buy her everything instead of just being humble and simply asking him to help her. With the moral high ground clearly in his corner, Gable ironically then goes off to the telegraph office and offers his ex-editor the scoop of the century. He clearly knows a good story when he sees one.
This being the 30s men are clearly men and no one does manly better than Gable. Not for nothing was he the shoo-in for Rhett Butler 5 years later in Gone with the Wind. A role he was so perfect for that when I first saw the movie I didn’t even clock that he was the one character in the film who wasn’t putting on a Southern accent. He didn’t need to. He WAS Rhett Butler. There are various aspects of his manliness that wouldn’t work now – slapping Colbert on her bottom as they cross the river or when he tells her father that she needs a man to slug her every day even if she doesn’t need it. That said nonetheless Gable doesn’t come across as a misogynist unlike some of the male comedians whose misogynistic rants I’ve had the misfortune to have to listen to on several occasions. Firstly, unlike them, you do believe that Gable does actually have sex with women, probably even on a regular basis. With Gable you also get the feeling that at heart he likes women, he wants to protect them and has a wry take on the battle of the sexes wherein he doesn’t take himself too seriously in the process.
In the role of her protector, Gable soon comes to her rescue when some irritating man tries to chat her up on the bus (we’ve all been there. I usually pretend that I don’t speak English and mutter a lot of German to them – that usually does the trick). He also puts her on a budget, as unused to limited funds, Colbert is going through her ready money at quite a pace. With a bridge down and the coach unable to travel in inclement weather, Gable organises for them both to stay in the same motel room. Colbert clearly isn’t keen but it’s either that or staying outside in a torrential downpour. To protect her modesty, though he jokingly and charmingly claims it’s to protect his, Gable ties a rope half way across the room, throws a blanket over it, thus separating the two beds from each other and calls it the Walls of Jericho. Modesty now intact, he also offers to help her if he can have the scoop and threatens to turn her in to her dad, if she doesn’t agree. It’s a great little scene and Gable is brilliant in a scene which was no doubt risqué in the mid-1930s. In it he is nonchalant and witty and apparently when he took his shirt off to reveal he didn’t have a vest on, sales of vests plummeted.
This being Capra, the film isn’t entirely free of social comment. Next day when the bus crashes, a little boy’s mother faints from lack of food. Both her and her son have spent all the money they had on tickets to New York on the promise of work there. Colbert generously gives him all Gable’s money for food. Soon after, Gable is confronted by a fellow passenger about who Colbert really is. Having been found out both he and Colbert leave the bus. Next day they are forced to hitch hike a lift to New York and this scene has become one of the most iconic scenes in American movies. Gable’s various hitchhiking techniques proving ineffectual, Colbert saunters on to the road, raises her skirt to show quite a lot of shapely leg and a car stops immediately much to Gable’s chagrin.
In New York King Wesley and Colbert’s dad make things up. She meanwhile is declaring her love to Clark Gable’s character, Peter. This spurns him to get up in the middle of the night, sell all he has for petrol to go up to New York, write his scoop and earn $1,000 so he can ask her to marry him. Woken by the motel owners who believe Peter has done a runner on them, they kick Colbert out. Understandably she believes he has deserted her too and phones her father to come and collect her. On his way back to Colbert, Gable sees her being taken away by King Wesley, her dad and the police. He turns round to follow her but the car breaks down en route.
Believing that she will never see Peter again, Colbert agrees to go ahead with the remarriage of King Wesley as her father has refused to recognise the elopement. Colbert’s character is clearly distracted and still in love with Gable’s reporter. However, scared of looking ridiculous, she insists on carrying on with the wedding. As she says to her father, she is tired of of running around in circles and feels she has to settle down. She learns from her dad that Peter has been in touch regarding a “financial arrangement” and believes that Peter was only interested in the money after all. The father isn’t too sure and invites a rather tipsy Gable, clearly also lovesick, to come over to the house. It turns out Gable isn’t after the $10,000 reward but merely wants the $39.60 he spent getting Colbert to New York. Likewise convinced that Colbert has taken him for a ride, he feels as if he’s been made a sucker of and doesn’t want to pay for the privilege.
As her dad walks Colbert down the aisle, he tells her that Peter has admitted to him that he loves her and that he wasn’t after the reward. With that Colbert makes a dash for it and runs off from her own wedding to a waiting car. The film ends rather coyly – this was after all the 30s and made just before the active enforcement of the Hays Code. It ends with the sound of a trumpet and the Walls of Jericho i.e. the blanket falling to the ground, and following Lubitsch’s principle (the director should do the 2 x 2 but allow the audience to come to 4), the film let’s the audience come to it’s own conclusion about what happens next….
If you want to see a romantic comedy where men were men and women had spirit, mixed with a lot of wry humour, then you can’t go far wrong with this movie. Gable is Gable (need we say more) and Colbert’s beauty in the film is luminous. The movie adroitly shows how humans are adept at making themselves unhappy when it comes to love, allowing circumstances and misunderstandings almost to get in the way of their love for each other. It’s a gem of a picture and Gable and Colbert are brilliant in it. At heart about the War of the Sexes, you nevertheless get the feeling that both characters really care for each other and the on-screen chemistry between the two stars is evident. It’s this genuine warmth at the heart of the movie which probably makes it stand out from some of the more recent filmic variations on this theme and why, almost 70 years after its initial release, it’s still considered a classic.