It Happened One Night (1934) is one of the greatest romantic comedies in film history, and a film that has endured in popularity. It is considered one of the pioneering “screwball” romantic comedies of its time, setting the pattern for many years afterwards along with another contemporary film, The Thin Man (1934).
The escapist theme of the film, appropriate during the Depression Era, is the story of the unlikely romantic pairing of a mis-matched couple – a gruff and indifferent, recently-fired newspaper man (Gable) and a snobbish, superior-acting heiress (Colbert) – a runaway on the lam. It is a reversal of the Cinderella story (the heroine rejects her wealthy lifestyle), a modern tale with light-hearted sex appeal in which courtship and love triumph over class conflicts, socio-economic differences, and verbal battles of wit.
The madcap film from Columbia Studios (one of the lesser studios) was an unexpected runaway box office sleeper hit (especially after it began to play in small-town theaters), and it garnered the top five Academy Awards (unrivaled until 1975, forty-one years later by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – and then again by The Silence of the Lambs (1991).) It won all five of its nominated categories: Best Picture, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra), and Best Adaptation (Robert Riskin). — Tim Dirks, filmsite.org
Scripted by Capra’s frequent collaborator Robert Riskin, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) became the prototypical screwball comedy and elevated Columbia Pictures from Poverty Row status to respectable “major minor” studio. Starring Clark Gable, on loan from MGM as punishment, and Claudette Colbert, on loan from Paramount for twice her usual pay, Capra’s and Riskin’s comic romance between a down-to-earth newspaper reporter and a spoiled runaway heiress set the standard for screwball. Its fast-paced repartee, kooky heroine, witty gags, and class-crossing love story became hallmarks of the genre in such later films as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Bringing Up Baby (1938); the overt lustiness barred by the 1934 Production Code was transmuted into clever banter and the romance conveyed an ideal Depression-era fantasy. A critical and commercial hit, It Happened One Night was the first film to sweep the top five Oscars, rewarding Capra, Riskin, Gable, and Colbert, and fulfilling Columbia impresario Harry Cohn’s desire to turn his B-studio into a class act. Undershirt sales reportedly plummeted when Gable revealed on screen that he wasn’t wearing one. — Lucia Bozzola, AMG