Monday, February 22, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "It Happened One Night" (1934)

Scene from It Happened One Night
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

It Happened One Night
Release Date: February 22, 1934
Director: Frank Capra
Written By: Robert Riskin (Screenplay), Samuel Hopkins Adams (Story)
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Running Time: 105 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Clark Gable)
-Best Actress (Claudette Colbert)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Barretts of Wimpole Street
-Flirtation Walk
-The Gay Divorcee
-Here Comes the Navy
-The House of Rothschild
-Imitation of Life
-One Night of Love
-The Thin Man
-Viva Villa!
-The White Parade

And the winner is...

Back in the day when The Academy Awards weren't even 10 years old, there were few directors who would hold as much clout as Frank Capra. In the 1930's alone, he won Best Picture twice (and became one of the first to win Best Director multiple times), including one for It Happened One Night. With a cast that included Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, it was a romantic comedy that not only managed to invent the genre, but helped to define many of the tropes that have become commonplace over 80 years later. While it wasn't as beloved by the people who made it, the film continues to resonate by capturing what early Hollywood did best with their star power, willing to do anything that was required from them.

The year was 1933. Hollywood was a few years into talkies. It was also an era prior to the Hayes Code, which would create decency standards for films in order to keep them from corrupting the audience morally. The movie studio Colombia was considered a "poverty row" studio that was barely able to stay afloat and had to have talents leased from other places. In fact, it was considered an act of humbling. Soon Capra got involved and was handed a script based around "Night Bus," a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams. It wasn't a controversial story, but various performers rejected the script for a variety reasons. Myrna Loy rejected it because she had just done a terrible bus movie. However, most people rejected it more because the script was bad. Capra looked for advice. All he received was the request to possibly make the leads more empathetic.

Among those who rejected the script was Colbert. He had worked with Capra in 1927 on For the Love of Mike and had a terrible time, vowing to never star in any of his films ever again. The one deal that finally got her to take it was that she would have doubled salary from her original gig while only working four weeks. Her attitude was very much in keeping with a sense of displeasure. Capra would complain that she threw fits and was very stubborn in most cases. In fact, she initially turned down the chance to film the famous roadside scene where she lifts her skirt. When a double substituted, she did it anyway while complaining that it was not her leg.

Gable was also not an easy get. The rumor goes that he mostly did the film as punishment for refusing a different project at his parent studio. Still, he was cooperative with Capra and would attempt to make Colbert laugh on set in order to ease tension. One of the film's famous scenes also reflected Gable's star power. When the two share a hotel room, Gable was initially supposed to remove an undershirt. He believed that it ruined his comic timing, so he went shirtless. The report goes that this moment caused a change in the culture. Undershirts were no longer a necessity and sales were reported to have decreased. It got so bad that the shirt industry considered suing Colombia. Gable's character also contributed some vague similarities to Loony Tunes character Bugs Bunny (such as being nicknamed "Doc"), of whom would be invented a few years later.

Due to Colombia's low profile, the film had trouble being marketed to audiences. This didn't stop it from receiving critical acclaim, which highlighted many aspects of the film's chemistry and comedy. When the film was later rereleased with more buzz attached, it began to do steady business and became a runaway hit. It is said that because of the film's success, it helped to take Colombia from a poverty row studio into a more legitimate one. Despite the acclaim, the people making it begs to differ on its actual quality, with Colbert even telling a friend that she had just made the worst movie in the world (an opinion she carried to her death as the last surviving cast member).

Colbert was so sure that she wouldn't win that she ended up skipping The Academy Awards that year. Part of her deal with Capra was that she would be done in time for a trip via train. When it was announced that Colbert had won, the studio sent someone to the station to retrieve her, as the train had yet to leave the station. She gave the speech in a travelling outfit. Despite their conflicts, Colbert thanked Capra for the work during her speech. The film itself became the first title to win "The Big Five"; or Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also the first film to win both lead acting categories. Along with You Can't Take It With You, it was one of two times that Capra would win Best Picture during the decade.

The film's literal legacy has a strangely hostile one. Along with Colbert's animosity, Gable was also displeased with the picture. It is said that at one point, he gave his Oscar to a child who was admiring it. Gable claims that he did it because it was more worthwhile to win one than to have one. Gable's statue lived on in the child's collection until Gable's death, at which point the owner returned it to the Gable family. The Oscars were later auctioned off, with Steven Spielberg buying his. Almost like Colbert's feelings, nobody bid on her statue. The film's remaining legacy is prominent not only as a high point for pre-code romantic comedies, but as the general structure for what the genre can do. It has been lampooned to this day from Spaceballs to Sex and the City 2. It has been so ingrained in the culture that it is impossible for anyone into classic film to ever not be aware of its impact.

It Happened One Night is a romantic comedy that set a bar pretty high for the almost-century to come. What's more impressive is the chemistry between Gable and Colbert, both of whom weren't necessarily willing to put up with the production for more than their allotted time. Still, Capra worked his magic and produced something that still resonates to this day. It helped to launch his career and give him more appetizing projects that would arguably become even more iconic in their respective genres. It's a slice of American film making that is pure and sweet in all of the best ways possible. It makes sense then that it helped to save a failing studio and became an iconic hit at the same time. It may not be Capra's most fruitful partnership, but it's one of his most intriguing.

1 comment:

  1. "Back in the day when The Academy Awards weren't even 10 years old, there were few directors who would hold as much clout as Frank Capra. In the 1930's alone, he won Best Picture twice (and became the first to win Best Director multiple times), including one for It Happened One Night."

    Frank Lloyd won his two Directing Oscar before Capra, for 1928/29 (The Divine Lady) and for 1932/33 (Cavalcade).