Genre: Screwball Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.
Release Date: February 23rd, 1934 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Frank Capra Actors: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Alan Hale
poiled young Ellen (Claudette Colbert) has married aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas), primarily (perhaps solely) to upset her exceedingly rich Wall Street banker father, Mr. Andrews (Walter Connolly). She’s used to getting her way (although she swears to the contrary) and is frequently shocked when something goes wrong or someone doesn’t show her the respect she thinks she deserves; fortunately, extreme wealth is easy to fall back on. When her father arranges for an annulment, she holes up in her room on the family yacht docked near Miami. Eventually, she becomes so enraged that she dives over the side to swim ashore to escape. Meanwhile, slipping newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is fired from his New York job by permanently manic editor Joe Gordon (Charles C. Wilson). Warne boards a bus back to the Big Apple, coincidentally on the same vehicle for which Ellie has purchased a ticket. At their first rest stop, her bag is stolen, leaving her without money and desperate to keep her identity a secret.
“You’re as helpless as a baby,” maintains Warne, who reluctantly helps Ellie in her journey to New York to reunite with Westley. He’s quick to point out her inability to fend for herself, frequently calling her a brat, and insistent on controlling her rapidly dwindling finances. She discovers that his motivation for providing assistance is for a day-to-day account of her life as she makes her way to her destination; it’s sure to be a great story of gossipy (and financial) value that can get him his job back.
Peter quickly falls for the girl, despite struggling to keep his emotions in check, knowing her upbringing can only spell trouble. He’s hopeful, however, in reforming her mollycoddled ways and teaching her a few things about independence and the principles that oppose her convenient accessibility to monetary manipulation. But her fickleness and combative ego make her the perfectly ironic companion as the tables are turned and Peter becomes penniless and lacking luggage. It’s a classic tale of complete opposites destined to be together, a battle of the sexes, and a touch of class warfare, made even more entertaining through constant, capricious, sparring dialogue.
The screenplay is sensational, alternating between dramatic, comedic, and romantic, handling each with remarkable care. Peter is quick-witted, bitterly sarcastic, and commanding; Ellie proves she’s more intelligent and humorously acerbic than the typical pampered heiress role she’s supposed to fill. The script leads to several of the most iconic of all movie moments, including Gable’s narrated undressing in front of Colbert; the recurring “Walls of Jericho” gag, fashioned out of a hanging blanket and representing privacy for decent individuals; and a lesson in hitchhiking, resulting in the showing of Colbert’s shapely leg to hail a passing car (an act of multiple layers, considering she attracts an unscrupulous driver, ultimately only interested in scamming travelers). Incredibly rare and clearly archetypal, “It Happened One Night” took home the Academy Awards for the top five spots (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), a feat that wouldn’t be duplicated for another 41 years. And, just as uncommon, this record-setting accomplishment went to a screwball comedy.
– Mike Massie