It Happened One Oscar Night 80 Years Ago



By Danny Peary


Considering the title of Frank Capra’s classic, it seems odd that this weekend the IFC Center will be showing It Happened One Night at 11 a.m. in the morning.  But no matter, it’s Oscar weekend and this 105-minute, black-and-white comedy gem captured all the major awards for 1934 on February 27, 1935 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.  So see it after breakfast even if you have to hitch a ride, as Clark Gable (who was loaned to Columbia Pictures as punishment) and Claudette Colbert do unforgettably in the film. Incidentally, Colbert, a splendid actress who is too often forgotten today, had to be persuaded to get off a train bound for New York to collect her statue.  No true movie fan should have to be persuaded to see this marvelous film whenever it plays on the big screen, but let me reprint what I wrote about it thirty years ago in Guide for the Film Fanatic:

“Irresponsible heiress Claudette Colbert (as Ellie Andrews) runs away from home after her father (Walter Connolly) annuls her marriage to a no-account aviator playboy.  She wants to get back to the playboy and becomes the object of a nationwide search.  She ends up on a bus with boozy, hardboiled reporter Clark Gable (as Peter Warne).  He says he won’t turn her in, as long as he can get an exclusive on her story–that will get him his job back at the paper that fired him.  On their journey they do a lot of squabbling, but fall in love.  Super Frank Capra comedy was supposed to be a minor picture but wound up as the first picture to win all five major Oscars: Best Picture (a rarity for a comedy), Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay (by Robert Riskin).  Many critics regard it as the first screwball comedy, but the humor is surprisingly controlled.  It comes naturally from the two actors, whose characters are wild only at the beginning.  What makes the film so special is that it is composed of small moments–Gable demonstrating hitching techniques for Colbert (who realizes a pretty leg is better than a thumb); Gable teaching Colbert how to dunk donuts properly; Gable carrying Colbert across a stream and arguing with her about the definition of a piggy back ride; the motel scene (Gable didn’t wear an undershirt, causing sales to decline nationwide) in which Colbert and Gable sleep on opposite sides of a hanging blanket–the “Walls of Jericho” will come tumbling down in the end.  Weirdest scene has Gable pretending to be a mobster to scare off Roscoe Karns so he won’t blab about Colbert’s whereabouts–Gable actually threatens to harm his children.  From Samuel Hopkins Adams’ story “Night Bus,” which provided the title. Also with Jameson Thomas (as the aviator), Alan Hale, Ward Bond.”  Good news is that the IFC Center is showing a new print that was made from a digitally-restored master film copy.  It was restored frame-by-frame from the original negative in 2013 of the pre-production-code film that Colbert thought back in 1934 was “the worst picture in the world”–until she took home (or to New York) her only Academy Award this week eighty years ago.