An Appreciation: It Happened One Night


It Happened One Night (1934) was one of the original screwball comedies, and is considered a seminal work of the genre. Witty, smart and romantic without being mawkish, It Happened One Night remains every bit as compelling today as it did upon its release nearly 80 years ago. Much of the film’s lasting appeal lies with director Frank Capra’s casting, and, oddly enough, the production’s hurried shooting schedule. The movie had to be filmed in a four-week window to accommodate the production’s female lead, Claudette Colbert, who insisted it not delay a previously planned vacation. With such a truncated window, Capra did not have time to build elaborate soundstage sets or do much else in the way of preproduction. The director adjusted by shooting much of the film on location – a decision that mirrored the film’s on-the-road plot device – giving the production a very real sense of urgency, and imbuing it with much of its comedic tension. It certainly didn’t hurt Capra’s cause that Colbert and co-star Clark Gable displayed a palpable on-screen chemistry. Still, the film’s principal players were anxious about the reception that awaited its release, with Colbert believing it would be the worst role of her career. Of course, that turned out not to be the case – It Happened One Night would be the first movie to win all five major categories at the Academy Awards.

The film’s plot is a setup common to screwball comedies – a clash of opposing personalities and social classes that inevitably gives way to a love affair. Gable plays the brash, newly unemployed newspaper reporter Peter Warne and Colbert is the spoiled socialite Ellie Andrews. Ellie has married the wealthy fortune hunter King Westley (Jameson Thomas) against the wishes of her father (Walter Connolly). She escapes her father’s yacht to consummate the marriage, eventually boarding a bus bound for New York. She winds up sitting next to Peter, who strikes a deal with her in which she gives him an exclusive account of her story in exchange for his help to get her to King. Over the course of their winding journey north, during which a series of misadventures occur, they overcome their initial distaste for one another and fall in love. Colbert and Gable are finely paired, and their witty exchanges and verbal skirmishes would set a high standard for the screwball films that would follow.