The depression-weary US cinema audiences of the thirties craved escapist pictures, especially romantic comedies with a touch of screwball. Released in 1934, the widely acclaimed It Happened One Night fitted the criteria perfectly and although it was not an immediate hit, the picture was handsomely rewarded at the box office and the Academy Awards ceremony.
Adapted from the short story Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams, It Happened One Night was written by Robert Riskin, directed (and co-produced) by Frank Capra, and stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, and Roscoe Karns.
The film tells the story of spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews has eloped with pilot King Westley against the wishes of her father who believes that he is only interested in Ellie’s money.
After she jumps ship in Florida, Ellie takes a bus to New York so that she can meet her husband. She meets a roguish newspaper reporter, Peter Warne, who had just been dismissed from his job.
Peter recognizes who Ellie and is and offers her a proposal: to provide him an exclusive on the story in return for bringing her to Westley. He also threatens to tell her father if she does not agree with his proposal.
As they travel together, Ellie begins to fall in love with Peter, and they have to face many hurdles before they can reach New York City.
Despite the massive reputation that the film would soon have, the immediate responses for It Happened One Night were not encouraging. It was reported that Claudette Colbert, who plays Ellie Andrews, had initially distanced itself from the film and that the leads were unhappy with the original script, leaving Robert Riskin to rewrite the script.
Claudette Colbert had initially turned down the role. Although she was recommended by studio boss Harry Cohn, Colbert had vowed never to make another film with Capra following her first-ever film experience with him. A huge $50,000 wage offer and the promise of a short month film schedule enticed Colbert to accept the part.
Frank Capra would later reveal that Clark Gable, who plays Peter Warne, was a reluctant participant in the making of It Happened One Night. It was rumored that Gable, who was under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was sent to Columbia as punishment for refusing a role at the studio.
Whatever the problems the lead stars had off-screen, they are not noticeable on-screen. The script, the direction, and the performances blend perfectly.
It Happened One Night is now regarded as a major work of the genre, which turned its director Frank Capra into a leading auteur and brought huge praise for the scriptwriter, and regular collaborator Robert Riskin.
The film is also one of the first examples of a “Road movie”. It also contains themes, such as love, the need for freedom, and the problem with wealth, that audiences found uplifting during the Great Depression which typified many of Frank Capra and Robert Riskin’s collaborations.
Practically inventing the romantic screwball comedy formula, the success of It Happened One Night meant that more similar comedies would soon be produced. With the fast and witty dialogue, the kooky heroine, and love story that transcends classes, It Happened One Night contains all the hallmarks that are present in later films of the genre such as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).
As a Pre-Code production, It Happened One Night was among the last films to be released before the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code was enforced. Much of the sexual chemistry present in the film would soon become prohibited in future productions.
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert would win Oscars for their memorable performances. Colbert had not attended the Academy Awards ceremony because she was convinced that she would not win. However, Columbia boss Harry Kohn had Colbert taken the train station directly to the ceremony to accept the prize in person.
As well as winning for Best Actor and Best Actress, It Happened One Night won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, adaptation, a clean sweep of the top five Oscars.
A critical and artistic triumph, It Happened One Night elevated Columbia Studios out of “poverty row” into becoming a major Hollywood studio, further establishing the reputations of its director and writer, and influencing so many films of the genre throughout the decades.
It Happened One Night is one of the finest and most important movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Essential Reading: Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
(Please read the more detailed Classic Film Journal book review)
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is a part-Hollywood memoir and part-Hollywood love story, but it is also an affectionate tribute by a proud daughter. There is so much detail about the early years of Hollywood along the way, including screenwriter Robert Riskin’s relationship with Frank Capra, actor Fay Wray’s involvement with the Screen Actors Guild and her work with other notable Hollywood filmmakers.
The happiness that Robert and Fay would find together is recollected by their daughter with joy and a touch of melancholy.
Insightful, intelligent and brilliantly written, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is not only a sensitively told love story and an honest account of two early leading lights of early cinema but is also a highly informative record of an important time in Hollywood’s history. This is the definitive book on the era.
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
By Victoria Riskin
Pantheon Books, New York
Hardcover £13.90 / $17.99