It Happened One Night is the film generally credited with launching the "screwball comedy" genre popular in the 1930s and 1940s. A difficult genre to define, the screwball comedy revolves around the characters' contradictory desires for individual identity and complete union in heterosexual romance. The films pit the couple's erotic moments of courtship against their verbal combats, battles of wit spiced with rapid-fire, brilliant repartee. Because of the resurgence of censorship in 1934 coupled with an American reluctance to be frank about sex, screwball comedies capitalized on the necessity to mask and to express verbally sexual tensions and conflicts. Screwball comedies usually relied upon a final reconciliation or marriage to establish the couple's unity but undercut it as a resolution to the couple's ongoing differences. It Happened One Night established these generic rules and provided a model for incorporating into a comic structure attitudes, fears, and tensions about social, sexual, and economic roles.
It Happened One Night, the story of a runaway madcap heiress who is befriended by an individualistic journalist so he can "scoop" her story, simply adapted for a Depression-era context a popular movie formula of the 1920s. Movies such as Dancing Mothers or A Woman of the World presented man-woman, husband-wife relationships in which both parties were witty, intelligent, charming, and thoroughly at odds with each other. Unlike the screwball comedies that arose later, these films extolled aristocratic life styles and proper behavior while resolving the sexual issues on superficial terms. German-emigré director Ernst Lubitsch strengthened the structural integrity of the formula and created the prototype for the screwball comedy in Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. Impressed and influenced by Lubitsch's films, Frank Capra borrowed the comic romantic structure that Lubitsch had evolved in order to deal with middle-class sexual and social proprieties. But Capra used the formula as a vehicle for the resolution of all economic and social differences in one vast American middle class united by the virtues of caring and sharing.
Capra's simple Depression-era philosophy, often labelled "Capracorn," is conveyed in It Happened One Night as a modern folk tale reversal of Cinderella. Rich girl Ellie Andrews flees her father so she can marry the worthless playboy of her dreams. Penniless and thrown on her own, she runs into the out-of-work ace reporter Peter Warne. In exchange for her "story," Warne helps her return to the playboy. Traveling by bus, foot, and auto across the backroads of 1930s America, they discover a mutual independence of spirit, feistiness, and resiliance. Warne gets the story, Andrews gets her playboy, but both discover that what they had really been seeking they had found in each other. The rich girl ultimately gets the poor boy proving that even the wealthy, if given a chance, will subscribe to the working class values that were deemed a prescription for fighting the Depression.
One of the most successful films of its time, It Happened One Night is in its making and reception a "rags-to-riches" story. When Capra first proposed the film based on a story serialized in Cosmopolitan, Columbia Pictures executives disliked the idea and thought that the fad had passed for bus movies. At least five Hollywood stars turned down the leading roles. Colbert initially hated the picture, and Gable only made the movie because angry MGM executive Louis B. Mayer had loaned him to Columbia as a punishment. When the finished film finally opened, poor reviews and indifferent moviegoers led to the movie's closing after only one week. The film resurfaced, however, and went on to win the top five Academy Awards. The film made stars of Colbert, Gable, and Capra, and Gable's bare-chested appearance in one scene has been said to be responsible for a 50 percent drop in undershirt sales within the year. Critics have since tried to explain the secret of the film's enduring popularity. They have generally credited Capra with inventing a message that audiences wanted to hear. The nutty romance, a down-to-earth courtship that maintains a spirit of crazy adventure in spite of adversities, showed audiences then as well as today, as critic Andrew Sarris said, "the private fun a man and a woman could have in a private world of their own making."
Release Date: 1934
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale, Wallis Clark, Harry Bradley, Arthur Hoyt, Blanche Frederic, and Ward Bond
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Robert Riskin
Source Citation: Rabinovitz, Lauren. "It Happened One Night." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 573-575.