An unemployed reporter helps a runaway heiress get back to New York without being discovered by the authorities.
It Happened One Night is a road trip romantic comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and was directed by Hollywood legend Frank Capra. Written by Robert Riskin and based off of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ short story, It Happened One Night has the proud distinction of being one of the earliest “road trip” genre films.
The story begins with upper class socialite Ellie Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert, who has just married King Westley, a high society aviator and businessman. Immediately Ellie’s father takes her away on his yacht in a last ditch effort to convince her to get the marriage annulled. Ellie reacts by jumping overboard and makes her way to a bus terminal where she purchases a ticket back to New York. During the first leg of the trip, Ellie encounters an unemployed news reporter, Peter Warne, comedically played by the great Clark Gable. The two strike up a backwards relationship, of sorts, and proceed to take the trip together.
Many actress turned down the script, including Constance Bennett and Myrna Loy. Claudette Colbert was approached at the moment she was leaving for vacation and after a long discussion with Capra, elected to push her vacation dates and signed on to do the film on the condition that she would have double her normal salary ($50,000 a week vs her usual $25,000). This was not the first collaboration that Colbert and Capra had together. Colbert’s first movie, For the Love of Mike (1927), was directed by Capra and was made in New York City while Colbert was still working as a full time performer on Broadway. The film was disastrous for the both of them and so there was distrust between the two from the get-go.
Clark Gable came to Columbia Pictures as a loan from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who was paying Gable a holding fee of $2,000 per week, even though they didn’t have a production for him. To offset the loss, Louis B. Mayer allowed the loan for $2,500 a week, making a small net profit. Gable was reluctant to work on the film, but had little choice in the matter.
The atmosphere on set was tense as Gable and Colbert disapproved of the material, citing the script as low quality. It is purported that when Gable first arrived to set, he told Capra, “Let’s get this over with”, making it clear how unhappy he was to have been loaned out for this “inferior” project. Gable and Colbert took a liking to one another through their common dissatisfaction with the script and only lightened after Capra suggested that Gable play occasional pranks on her.
Although she got along well with Gable, Colbert continued to demonstrate her displeasure while on set. She is said to have had many tantrums, largely motivated by her deep seeded hatred towards Capra. She balked at the idea of hiking up her skirt to entice passing drivers to give her a ride, citing that it was “beneath her”. Capra responded by introducing Colbert to her double, a chorus girl. Upon seeing her legs, a disgruntled Colbert changed her mind and agreed to do the scene without a double. Knowing that Colbert was perfect for the part, Capra took it all in stride, believing that the headache would pay off in the long run.
Among the many famous scenes that came out of It Happened One Night, is a moment inspired by Colbert’s refusal to undress in front of the camera. To cater to her prudish attitude, Capra came up with a “Walls of Jericho” gag: a sheet that Gable’s character puts up to divide the room for Colbert’s security and comfort. Additionally, in a scene where Gable undresses, his struggle wasn’t that he didn’t want to undress in front of the camera, but that he had difficulty removing his undershirt while keeping a flow with the dialog. To keep the pace going, Capra had the undershirt removed altogether, thus depicting the character as not ever wearing one to begin with. As a result of this improvisation in wardrobe, undershirt sales plummeted in the United States.
If all this complaining and heel dragging wasn’t enough to hit home just how “torchered” Colbert was during the production, she once complained to a friend, “I just finished making the worst picture of my career.”
I make an effort to avoid awards in these articles, as I don’t think they should be an attribute that drives a potential viewer to watch the film. However, in this case, I think it’s important to make it clear that Claudette Colbert, the whiner, hater and absolute antagonist in the backstory of this project, ended up winning an Oscar for her performance. Here’s the kicker, she disliked the film so much that she refused to attend the Oscars and when she was notified that she had won, an assistant had to locate her, wherever she was in the whole of Los Angeles, and escort her to the ceremony to make an acceptance speech. After her speech she started to leave the stage but then came back to the microphone and quickly thanked Capra for making the film. She proceeded to go on her long awaited vacation.
Initially the film’s popularity started off slow, but as it made its way to second run theaters, word of mouth began to spread and ticket sales shot up drastically. In the end, the film turned out to be Columbia’s biggest hit to date and catapulted Capra into absolute stardom and lifted Columbia out of it’s “Poverty Row” ranks.
It Happened One Night is proof that some actors just don’t know what they have until the bridges are burned.
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