It Happened One Night: Fashion and Cultural Impact

Frank Capra’s 1934 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 film inspired people to hit the road themselves, especially women, and especially on buses! In 1934, there was a whopping 43 percent increase in women bus travelers due to the film’s impact. The film features a long-distance bus ride from Miami to New York that suggested to women of the day that they, like Claudette Colbert as a runaway heiress who falls in love with a down-and-out newspaperman, might find love and adventure on a cross-country bus.

The film is also famous for introducing Hollywood, and the rest of the world; to the various travel phenomena of hitchhiking, the “Auto Camp,” and American motels. In other words, “Travel American Style.” The often-imitated hitchhiking scene from “It Happened One Night” is one of the film’s indelible moments. After several attempts, under the scrutiny of Colbert, Gable is unsuccessful in hailing a sympathetic motorist. Colbert then coyly walks to the side of the road, lifts her skirt pretending to fix her garters, and catches a motorist right away. Gable teases her, “Why didn’t you take all your clothes off You could have stopped forty cars.”

In Gable’s unforgettable performance a new ideal of the Depression-era man was created. Gable’s image in “It Happened One Night” became the most influential male image in America throughout the 1930s. This image was a turnaround from the image of the 1920s man, who was a troubled bohemian and artist, as Nick Carraway of Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby.” Gable’s Rhett Butler role in “Gone With the Wind,” the film that rounded out the 1930s, was continuation of Gable’s role in “It Happened One Night.”

Gable was everything that a man during the Depression needed to be for the good of an ailing country. He was strong as well professional, the best at what he did (journalism), tough, brash, sexy, self-centered, good-hearted, flashy, foul-mouthed, sarcastic, fast, resourceful, self-motivated, spontaneous, practical, reserved when need be—an ordinary man with extraordinary confidence. Of course, deep down inside he was soft and romantic, but that was something for Colbert to uncover.

The harshness of the Depression demanded these qualities, this kind of rigor from an ideal man. It’s important to remember that it was nothing more than an ideal. Gable is unemployed in the movie, as were many American men at the time. But unlike the majority of actual men in the 1930s, Gable lost his job because of his unconventional means of getting stories, which included getting drunk and writing free verse. This role, which Gable was averse to playing at first, allowed Gable to prove that he was a more versatile actor than previously believed.
“It Happened One Night” taught the industry many important lessons beyond Gable’s hidden talents, among them a lesson about fashion and merchandising. The film’s relationship to fashion was involved with Gable’s character. In yet another famous scene, Gable undresses to reveal his torso, surprisingly missing an undershirt. This single enthralling scene soon threw the entire men’s underwear business into a tailspin. In fact, the undershirt business declined 40 to 50 percent within that year.

At the beginning and ending of the film, there are the snatches of high-class glamor that characterized Hollywood of the time, but “It Happened One Night” subjugated this snooty glamor and found a new grungy glamor. An example of this grungy humor is when Gable takes off his shoes to carry Colbert across the river. He arranges some grass as a bed for her, and she is hungry, eating carrots.

In the process, “It Happened One Night” discovered the tip of the iceberg of how film and merchandising can work together. Today, we take film merchandising for granted because we are used to the merchandising blitzes of films. Hollywood first developed the art of merchandizing products with films subsequent to “It Happened One Night” effect on the underwear business. Film merchandising was a brand new idea at that time.

“The Walls of Jericho,” a bed-sheet that Gable and Colbert use to separate themselves in a motel room, also became a well-known image. “The Walls of Jericho’ll protect you from the big bad wolf,” Gable tells Colbert snidely. “It Happened One Night” allowed people to open up about sexuality, and in this way caused quite a sensation, when the Walls of Jericho fell at the end of the movie.

The dynamics of the film’s intense sexuality comes from Capra’s treatment of the characters’ interaction. There was something new, modern and sexually mature about their relationship, despite all the wisecracking. Capra nurtured a special rapport between Gable and Colbert, which contained a new honesty about sexuality. The film’s language is full of their sloppy, combative, humorous, romantic yet unsentimental lover-talk. Their relationship is driven by the repeated implication of frustrated sex.