The Push-Pull Perfection Of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

How Frank Capra skipped the schmaltz and delivered an all-time romantic comedy.

"Aren't you going to give me a little credit?"

"What for?"

"I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb."

"Why didn't you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars."

"Well, I'll remember that when we need forty cars."

Frank Capra's It Happened One Night was the first movie to win the Oscar grand slam. The film received Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 7th Academy Awards for the year 1934. After production difficulties, unhappy lead performers, slow opening box office and Capra's own misgivings about the film, no one really expected It Happened One Night to become Columbia's biggest hit to date, an Oscar darling and a film school standard nearly a century later. But that's usually the case with romantic comedies: studios and critics have low expectations of them, considering them less viable than war dramas or costume epics. 

The reason It Happened One Night is such a success is simple: it's a perfect romantic comedy. And people like romantic comedies. 

The film is light on Capra's trademark sentimentality, instead trading on the fire-hot, snarky chemistry between its leads: Claudette Colbert's Ellie, a willful heiress determined to make her own way, and Clark Gable's Peter, a wry, down-on-his-luck reporter looking for a scoop. Rather than making moon-eyes and heaving deep sighs, Ellie and Peter trade barbs and witticisms, giving a Beatrice and Benedick vibe to the proceedings. 

Part of the spark - flint on steel - is Ellie's anachronistic independence. She's a fierce, inflexible woman, unwilling to bow to the demands of her loving but over-protective father (Walter Connolly as Andrews). And Peter admires her headstrong personality, enjoying the push-pull of their equal intransigence. Unlike Andrews, Peter isn't looking to subdue Ellie. He just wants someone as alive as he is - even if it takes him a little while to realize Ellie's that woman. 

If I could ever meet the right sort of girl. Where you gonna find her? Somebody that's real. Somebody that's alive. They don't come that way anymore. Have I ever thought about it? I've even been sucker enough to make plans. You know, I saw an island in the Pacific once. I've never been able to forget it. That's where I'd like to take her. She'd have to be the sort of a girl who'd... well, who'd jump in the surf with me and love it as much as I did. You know, nights when you and the moon and the water all become one. You feel you're part of something big and marvelous. That's the only place to live... where the stars are so close over your head you feel you could reach up and stir them around. Certainly, I've been thinking about it. Boy, if I could ever find a girl who was hungry for those things...

Though neither Gable nor Colbert was the first choice to play their roles, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Peter or Ellie. Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, Myrna Loy, Loretta Young, Bette Davis and Carole Lombard were all considered for the role of Ellie, while Robert Montgomery was originally intended to be Peter, before Gable and Colbert eventually came onboard, both rumored to be unwilling. Both seemed to be dissatisfied with the script, with Colbert legendarily saying after shooting wrapped, "I just finished the worst picture in the world." 

But everyone - Gable, Colbert, Columbia, even Capra himself - underestimated the film, and the effect fiery chemistry, some quality banter and a great-looking film can have on audiences. Word of mouth spread, the film stuck around in theaters and box office sales began to climb. The story is that Clark Gable's eschewal of an undershirt demolished undershirt sales in America. It Happened One Night became one of only three films - along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Silence of the Lambs - to win the big five Oscars. Colbert was so certain she wouldn't win Best Actress that she didn't attend the ceremony, and had to be summoned from an imminently departing train to accept her award. 

Decades later and the film is one of the most lasting and culturally significant romantic comedies of all time. And no one saw it coming.