Cinema and Media Studies It Happened One Night
by
Linda Mizejewski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0103

Introduction

The low-budget sleeper It Happened One Night (1934), directed by Frank Capra (b. 1897–d. 1991) was the first film to sweep the Academy Awards by winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing/Adaptation, a feat that remains rare in Oscar history. However, the more substantial impact of It Happened One Night is evident in its legacy. Well into the early 21st century, mainstream cinema continues to reproduce this film’s formula of the unlikely couple who “meet cute” and bicker their way into happily ever after. It Happened One Night is considered the template for the romantic-comedy film and screwball comedy and is also an early “road” film, structured around the bus/car/hitchhiking journey of spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and unemployed reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Together they evade the authorities so Ellie can get from Florida to New York and consummate her ill-conceived marriage to a well-heeled playboy. The sexual tension between Ellie and Peter plays out as class conflict, resolved at the film’s conclusion when Ellie runs away from the altar at her high-society wedding, returns to Peter, and honeymoons with him at a humble motel cottage resembling the ones they used—illegitimately but chastely—during their journey. Ellie’s wealthy father, at first an antagonist, becomes the patriarch with the heart of gold who enables Ellie and Peter to unite. Because the 1930 Hays Code was in force while the film was being shot, its sexual innuendoes were primarily conveyed through the witty conversation. Screenwriter Robert Riskin adapted the script from “Night Bus,” a short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams that first appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1933 and got the notice of Capra, who was the leading director at Columbia Pictures at the time. It Happened One Night was the first of several Capra films that secured his reputation as an auteur and as a “populist” Depression-era director. A huge moneymaker for Columbia, the film was rebooked in theaters continuously for nearly a year. It Happened One Night also dramatically enhanced the careers of Gable and Colbert, whose star value increased considerably following their roles as the original screwball couple.

General Overviews

Considered both a landmark romantic comedy and an example of “the Capra touch,” It Happened One Night has garnered attention from film critics, cinema scholars, and movie buffs. For a well-researched introduction to the film’s significance in social and film history, Maltby 2005 is a good start. Hicks 1993 and Nochimson 2001 offer short, scholarly analyses of the production and the film’s major themes, while Gehring 2004, Kimmel 2008, Schneider 2013, and Stables 2010 provide overviews for the general reader. Mizejewski 2010 is the only book-length analysis of the film.

  • Gehring, Wes D. “Screwballs of the Silver Screen.” USA Today Magazine, March 2004: 62–65.

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    Hails the 1934 films It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century as the launching of screwball comedy, Hollywood’s popular enactment of the battle of the sexes. Highlights the impact of the Depression and the Motion Picture Production Code (film censorship), the latter of which resulted in the conveyance of sexual material through wit and innuendo.

  • Hicks, Jimmie. “Frank Capra (Part 2).” Films in Review 44.1–2 (1993): 8–23.

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    Provides details of the film’s production and short summary of some of its contemporaneous reviews.

  • Kimmel, Daniel M. “It Happened One Night.” In I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies. By Daniel M. Kimmel, 25–40. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008.

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    An entertaining account of the film’s production, focusing on how Frank Capra, Claudette Colbert, and Clark Gable came to the project and how the film was a turning point in the career of each.

  • Maltby, Richard. “It Happened One Night (1934): Comedy and the Restoration of Order.” In Film Analysis: A Norton Reader. Edited by Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutsky, 216–237. New York: Norton, 2005.

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    Excellent overview of the film’s position in the development of screwball comedy and within the cultural, historical, and political issues of its day. Describes impact of the Hays Production Code and emphasizes the importance of the casting of Gable as masculine assertion of social order. Ideal for undergraduate film courses.

  • Mizejewski, Linda. It Happened One Night. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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    Analyzes the film as the blueprint for romantic comedy and parses out its various, often-contradictory interpretations. Covers the film’s origins, the auteurship issues surrounding Capra, and effects on the stardom of Gable and Colbert. Also discusses the movie’s censorship issues, historical contexts, class controversies, and meanings as romantic comedy. Includes one extensive scene analysis per chapter. Targeted for undergraduate film courses.

  • Nochimson, Martha P. “It Happened One Night.” Cinémathèque Annotations on Film 12 (February 2001).

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    Analyzes the importance of this film for the development of romantic comedy and points out its contradictions about gender and class, noting that despite the film’s populist reputation, “Working class solidarity doesn’t get anyone anywhere.”

  • Schneider, Dan. “It Happened One Night, Frank Capra.” Alt Film Guide, 19 January 2013.

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    For a general audience, an overview of the film’s production history and significance.

  • Stables, Kate. “Hitch, He Said.” Sight & Sound 20.12 (2010): 48.

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    Lauds the film’s grittiness and lack of sentimentality, arguing that it offers a playful treatment of sexuality but still taps into the bleakness of the Depression.

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