For awhile now, my husband and I have been working our way through the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies [the 10th anniversary edition, which was updated in 2007]. The films on that list are basically what you’d expect. Citizen Kane is #1. Casablanca, Dr. Strangelove, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz are all represented.
Watching the films on this list has given me the opportunity to see movies I probably would not have watched otherwise; some good and some not so much. Movies which I couldn’t imagine being the best film of the year, let alone among the best 100 American films in cinematic history.
But we have also discovered some gems through the list. It Happened One Night is among those gems.
It Happened One Night is credited with a few important firsts in Hollywood. It has been called the first screwball comedy, and it was one of the first films to self-censor according to what was and is popularly called the Hays Production Code, a system which would keep its thumb on mainstream Hollywood productions for decades, and shape the film industry arguably forever.
The film was a hit, much to the surprise of most people involved, especially the lead actors. Both Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable famously grumbled about having to do the film. Rumors abound that Gable was only loaned to Columbia Pictures to do the film as a kind of punishment for being generally stubborn and disagreeable or for having an affair with Joan Crawford, depending on who you talk to. More likely, though, is the more updated theory: Gable was on contract with MGM for $1,000 a week regardless of whether he was working. There was a gap in his schedule which allowed for the short, 4-week shooting schedule of It Happened One Night and MGM could make $1,500 a week loaning Gable out. So they did, but he wasn’t happy about it.
Colbert had worked with Frank Capra before and swore never to do it again after the disaster that was her first movie, For the Love of Mike . She was only persuaded to take the part after she was promised $50,000—double her usual per movie salary. She was also guaranteed that the shoot would only take 4 weeks, leaving her enough time to take a planned vacation.
Rumor has it she remarked to a friend after filming wrapped that she had just finished making the worst film of her life.
The film far exceeded everyone’s low expectations. It was released to little fanfare but was generally well received by critics. When it hit theaters in lower-income towns, though, it really took off. This is likely because of the film’s class tensions between the rich and snobby Ellie, played by Colbert, and the scrappy and very not-rich Peter, played by Gable. Peter frequently admonishes Ellie throughout the film, essentially scolding her for being rich. This seemed to work well for depression-era audiences, who blamed the wealthy for the market crash. The film was a box office success, and has remained one of the most beloved classics of all time.
As I watched It Happened One Night again, it’s easy to see why it works so well and pretty difficult to figure out why the players involved predicted it would flop. Colbert and Gable have electric chemistry. The dialogue is snappy and hilarious, if a little dated [for example, when Peter says Ellie needs someone who will take a sock at her whether or not she has it coming]. The story is a little weak, but the performances and writing make it so that you hardly notice. But it is more than just fun. It is a special movie in the canon; one that had far reaching effects on film.