Oscar: Best Actress–Colbert, Claudette, It Happened One Night

Claudette Colbert won her first and only Best Actress Oscar for the 1934 charming screwball comedy “It Happened One Night,” directed by Frank Capra.

Capra’s first classic (in 1934 he was relatively unknown, though his previous film, “Lady for a Day” was a success) was also the first Hollywood entertainment to successfully negotiate between the realities of the Depression and the fantasies of the big screen.

Appearing in the midst of the Depression, “It Happened One Night brought” to the American people a livelier yet down-to-earth kind of movie experience than was the current fare of the time. The film was a shocking success. That “It Happened One Night” became the most important movie of the mid-1930s, despite humble beginnings, classifies its as a true Hollywood sleeper.
But why Capra’s raunchy humor, combined with social honesty, was in tune with Depression-era film audiences. Capra’s true-to-the-times revamping of the road movie knocked Hollywood around. “It Happened One Night” forcefully spelled the end for the some of the more expressionistic experiments Hollywood was producing at the time, such as Von Sternberg’s “The Scarlett Empress,” also in 1934.
Although “It Happened One Night” is not necessarily qualified as a screwball comedy–it’s more of a genteel romance–many scholars attribute the subsequent rise of the screwball to the acceptance of Capra’s comedy.
The snappy dialogue and eccentric humor in the film prefigure the mode of screwball.
With little publicity, “It Happened One Night” was released by a second-rank studio at the time, Columbia, without any hopes.  However,opening at the Radio City Music Hall on February 23, 1934, the film went on to become the year’s biggest success, an extraordinary sleeper.
None of the key people involved wanted to make the film, including Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and even Capra. They all had doubts about doing a “bus picture.” “It Happened One Night” became the first film in history to win all five major Academy Awards, with Oscars granted to Capra, Gable and Colbert and writer Robert Riskin. “It Happened One Night” also received the honor, Best Picture, which is an amazing achievement for a comedy. The film was in fact the first comedy to win Best Picture. 
This feat of sweeping all the major awards had never been accomplished before and was not accomplished again until 1975, 41 years later, when “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” swept the top five Oscars.
Capra’s movie was much more than a romantic comedy on wheels. The film was an inspiration for people to survive the Depression. One of the film’s most inspiring scenes is when a busload of strangers sing “The Man on the Flying Trapeeze” together, suddenly creating a spontaneous community. The bus passengers, strangers to each other, invent a fleeting moment of hope where they can forget their problems and become united as community. The song is interrupted, when a young boy screams that his mother has fainted. Such a scene shows the joy of Americans in pitching in together during the hard times. Capra was innovative in that he combined romantic comedy with a distinctively Depression-era landscape.
The commonplace scenes of 1930s misery were something new to Hollywood entertainment. The film is a catalogue of depression images: Downbeat locales of bus stations, dirty country roads, outdoor showers, and a dilapidated country. What is to eat in the movie’s world but raw carrots and the “depression breakfast” of one egg, one donut and a single coffee What has the American populace become but thieves, wise guys, bitter housewives, bratty kids, and lonely men.
The story is filled with the signs and the atmosphere of rootlessness, which was unusual for a Hollywood film. Capra uses this background to accentuate his questionable message that love can level all class distinctions, even during the Depression. This is the case with the Gable and Colbert relationship: upward mobility (for Gable) is possible (through Colbert). “It Happened One Night” told the American people, at a crucial moment in American history, that their dreams would yet come true. Rooted in the context of the Depression, the picture embodies the values of upward mobility, ambition, individual success, and romantic love.
Oscar Alert
Oscar Nominations: 5
Picture, produced by Harry Cohn
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay (Adaptation): Robert Riskin
Actor: Clark Gable
Actress: Claudette Colbert
Oscar Awards
Oscar Context
“It Happened One Night” competed for the Best Picture with eleven other films: “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “Cleopatra,” “Flirtation Walk,” “The Gay Divorcee,” “Here Comes the Navy,” “The House of Rothchild,” “Imitation of Life,” “One Night of Love,” “The Thin Man,” “Viva Villa!,” and “The White Parade.”