Friday, 20 March 2015

Film Friday: "It Happened One Night" (1934)

This week on "Film Friday," I bring you one of my favorite films of all time, one that paired "two great lovers of the screen in the grandest of romantic comedies."

Original release poster
Directed by Frank Capra, It Happened One Night (1934) tells the story of Ellen "Ellie" Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a spoiled, stubborn and headstrong heiress who has just married a fortune-hunter celebrity aviator named King Westley (Jameson Thomas) against the wishes of her wealthy father, Alexander (Water Connolly). Objecting to the wedding, Alexander kidnaps Ellie and takes her aboard his yacht, holding her prisoner against her will until the unconsummated marriage can be annulled. However, Ellie manages to run away from her father by jumping ship in Florida. She then boards a bus to New York, where she hopes to reunite with her new husband.

On the bus, Ellie meets Peter Warne (Clark Gable), an outspoken and recently unemployed newspaper reporter who is desperately looking for a juicy story. At their first stop, Ellie goes to a nearby hotel to freshen up. When she returns, she realizes not only that has she missed the bus, but also that Peter has waited for her, both to return the ticket she had left behind and to show her a newspaper article revealing her identity, which she was trying to conceal. Because they missed the bus, they are forced to spend the night at a cheap motel, where they pretend to be married to save money on a cabin. There, Peter gives Ellie an ultimatum: if she will give him an exclusive on her story, he will help her get back to Westley; if not, he will tell her father where she is. Ellie reluctantly chooses the first alternative. Despite their inital dislike for each other, somewhere between him teaching her the fine art of dunking doughnuts and her teaching him how to successfully hitchhike, Peter and Ellie inevitably begin to fall in love.

Peter Warne: Behold the Walls of Jericho! Uh, maybe not as thick as the ones that Joshua blew down with his trumpet, but a lot safer.

Founded in 1918, Columbia Pictures began as one of Hollywood's many start-up studios on "Poverty Row," producing short films and two-reel comedies which were used in theaters as fillers between main features. In the late 1920s, Columbia hired a young and ambitious director by the name of Frank Capra, who constantly pushed head of production Harry Cohn for better material and bigger budgets. After the success of Capra's Ladies of Leisure (1930), Platinum Blonde (1931) and Lady for a Day (1933) the latter receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture Columbia's popularity began to grow.

Frank Capra on the set
Following the release of Lady for a Day, Capra and frequent collaborator Robert Riskin adapted a magazine story written by Samuel Hopkins Adams called "Night Bus" and renamed it "It Happened One Night." No one at Columbia had much hopes that the story would make a good film, but they let Capra do it anyway. 

Capra wanted Robert Montgomery for the role of Peter Warne, but MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer refused to loan to Columbia. Besides, MGM had already cast Montgomery in its own bus picture, Fugitive Lovers (1934), which became a critical and commercial failure. The role of the female lead was initally offered to Myrna Loy, but she turned it down after being unimpressed by the first script draft. After Loy, a string of actresses rejected the role as well: Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, Loretta Young, Constance Bennett would only do it if she could produce it as well, Carole Lombard was unable to accept it due to schedule conflicts, and Bette Davis could not get Jack Warner to lend her to Columbia. "Actors don't like comedies much," Capra lamented. "They're not dynamic like melodramas nobody gets hurt, nobody gets killed, nobody gets raped."

With Montgomery out of the picture, Capra asked MGM to borrow Clark Gable instead. Mayer wanted to punish Gable for demanding better roles and a higher salary, so he agreed to lend him. Gable was furious about behind lent to Columbia, which was still considered a minor studio at the time, so as a protest, he arrived for the first meeting with Capra drunk, which ended up giving Riskin the idea for his character's introduction in the film. 

Colbert, Gable and Capra between takes
Harry Cohn then suggested Claudette Colbert for the female lead, but she initially turned it down as well. She was about to go on a much-planned skiing vacation, and she had found the script unappealing. What's more, the first film she had ever appeared in, the silent romantic drama For the Love of Mike (1927), had been directed by Capra and it was such an outstanding disaster that she swore never to work with him again. However, when Cohn doubled her salary and promised that It Happened One Night would only take a month to shoot, Colbert agreed to take on the part. She later insisted that she accepted the role because Gable was in it and she thought that having a strong, young male co-star would somehow elevate her position at Paramount, her home studio.

Although Gable was initially hostile towards It Happened One Night, he soon warmed up to it, establishing a friendly working relationship with both Capra and Colbert, and ended up really enjoying himself while making the film. But apparently Colbert was a reluctant player from beginning to end and fought with Capra every day of shooting. 

Clark and I kept wondering, 'What kind of reception can this kind of picture actually get?' This was right in the middle of Depression. People needed fantasy, they needed a dream of splendor and glamour, and Hollywood gave it to them. And here we were, looking a little seedy, riding our bus.
(Claudette Colbert)

Two scenes in particular, which eventually became two of the most iconic scenes in the film and perhaps in cinema history as well, proved to be the most difficult to shoot. First, it was the "Walls of Jericho" scene. Colbert refused to undress in front of the cameras, so Capra came up with the idea of hanging a blanket on a clothesline to separate Peter and Ellie's beds in the motel room.


Then, there was the hitchhiking scene, which proved to be even more problematic. The scene required Colbert to pull up her skirt and show her very shapely leg so as to entice a passing driver to provide a ride, but the actress vehemently refused, complaining that it was a very unladylike thing to do. The studio then hired a body double to make the scene, but Colbert was so unimpressed by the girl they brought in that she eventually agreed to do it.

We waited until the casting director sent us a chorus girl with shapely underpinnings to 'double' for Colbert's. When she saw the double's leg, she said: 'Get her of out of here. I'll do it. That's not my leg!'
(Frank Capra)

Ellie Andrews: I'll stop a car, and I won't use my thumb.

After a slow opening on January 1934, Capra feared that everyone around him had been right not to expect much from the film. But then, when it was released to the secondary movie houses the following month, the word quickly spread around Hollywood and It Happened One Night became a huge success, even setting a house record for an opening day at the Radio City Music Hall. The critics' reviews were equally as favorable. They praised Gable and Colbert's energy and their "slangy, combative, humorous, unsentimental and powerfully romantic" new style.

At the 7th Academy Awards, It Happened One Night surprised everyone when it was nominated in all five major categories (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay) and ended up winning them all, a feat that would only be repeated in 1975 with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and later on in 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. Claudette Colbert decided not to attend the ceremony, believing that she would not win, and was about to depart for her vacation on a train from New York when she was informed that she had actually won. She dashed to the ceremony, accepted the award, and went back to the train, which had been held for her.

I owe Frank Capra for this.
(Claudette Colbert upon received the Oscar)


It Happened One Night was one of the first (black & white) classic films I saw and it immeditely became one of my favorite films of all time. Frank Capra's direction is superb, Robert Riskin's screenplay is genius, and of course Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are a match made in the most beautiful corner of heaven. They play off each other so well that every scene they're in looks completely natural and effortless, and I love their 'I'm-better-than-you' kind of banter. I would never have guessed that neither one of them wanted to be in the film in the first place.
 

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SOURCES: 
Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (2011) | The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s by Elizabeth Kendall (2002) | TCMDb (Articles)

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