It Happened One Night (1934): First Picture to Win Five Top Awards, including Director Capra and Stars Gable and Colbert

In 1934, the charming comedy “It Happened One Night” was instrumental in moving the film industry ahead into a new era, when the Frank Capra film was released during the Depression. Frank 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.



Read: Famous Lines to Remember

It Happened One Night: Famous Lines to Remember

it_happened_one_night_2_gable_colbertAppearing 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, makes it 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.

it_happened_one_night_3_gable_colbertWith 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. On March 13, 1935, “It Happened One Night” was reissued by on the strength of its Oscars, becoming ever more popular and influential. .font-size:

it_happened_one_night_4_gable_colbertThis 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 Cuckoo’s Nest” swept the top five Oscars.

Capra’s movie was much more than a screwball or 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 Trapeze” 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 and mood.

it_happened_one_night_5_gable_colbertThe 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.

Detailed Plot

Spoiled heiress Ellen “Ellie” Andrews has eloped with pilot and fortune-hunter “King” Westley against the wishes of her wealthy father, Alexander, who wants the marriage to be annulled. Jumping ship in Florida, she runs away, boarding a bus to New York to reunite with her spouse, when she meets fellow passenger Peter Warne, a recently fired reporter. Warne recognizes her and proposes to help her if she grants him an exclusive story, or else he would inform her father of her whereabouts.

Ellie, penniless, is forced to rely on Peter. As they begin their adventure, Ellie loses her initial disdain for him. Needing an hitchhike, Peter claims to be an expert on the subject, but as car after car passes them by, he accepts his defeat. The sheltered Ellie then shows him how to do it, stopping the first car (driven by Danker) by lifting up her skirt and showing off her shapely legs.

When they stop for a break, Danker tries to drive off with their luggage, but Peter chases him down and takes his car. One night, nearing the end of their journey, Ellie confesses her love to Peter. Peter realizes that he also loves her, and leaves to make arrangements while she is asleep. When the owners of the motel in which they are staying notice that Peter’s car is gone, they kick Ellie out.

Feeling deserted, Ellie calls her father, who is so relieved to get her back that he agrees to let her marry Westley. Meanwhile, Peter has obtained money from his editor to marry Ellie, but as he drives back to tell her, they pass each other on the road. Ellie has no feelings for Westley, but, thinking that Peter has betrayed her for the reward money, she agrees to a formal wedding with Westley.

Ellie pretends that nothing has happened, but she is unable to fool her father. On her wedding day she reveals the whole story. When Peter comes to Ellie’s home, Mr. Andrews offers him the reward money, but Peter only wants his expenses, which amount to $39.60. When Ellie’s father demands an explanation for his odd behavior, Peter admits he loves Ellie.  At the wedding ceremony, as Mr. Andrews walks his daughter down the aisle, he reveals Peter’s refusal of the reward and encourages her to run off again. This time she obeys him and runs off to find Peter.

Oscar Nominations

Picture, produced by Harry Cohn
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay (Adaptation): Robert Riskin
Actor: Clark Gable
Actress: Claudette Colbert

Oscar Awards


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.