It Happened One Night actually happened in four weeks. Due to availability constraints with Claudette Colbert, that is all the time Director Frank Capra had to shoot this movie. And although the popular actress agreed to take the role (because she was promised double her usual salary), she made everyone aware that wasn’t very happy about the arrangement. Perhaps that is why she plays the part of Ellie Andrews so well.
Miss Ellie Andrews is the privileged daughter of a controlling millionaire (Walter Connolly). As a declaration of independence she elopes with the wealthy socialite and aviator Mr. King Westley (Jameson Thomas) - a man her father despises. So before the marriage can be consummated, Daddy swoops in, drags the disobedient girl off to Florida and locks her up on his yacht. His plan is to hold her there until the marriage can be annulled. Hers is to escape, make her way back to New York City and be reunited with her husband.
It is Ellie that makes the first move. Plunging over the side of the ship she swims ashore and secretly catches a bus headed north. Determined to catch her before she reaches her destination, Mr. Andrews sends a team of detectives after her (a job they have been assigned many times before). But it is a down-on-his-luck, slightly tipsy reporter that finds her first.
Peter Warne (Clark Gable) just happens to be on board the motor coach when Ellie slips into her seat. After he recognizes her as the missing, spoiled heiress whose picture is published in the newspaper, he strikes up an arrangement with the runaway woman: He’ll help her get back to her spouse to prove that love can triumph over all, and she’ll give him the exclusive right to her good story that hopefully will fix his bad reputation. She agrees - because if she doesn’t the no-guff Peter will alert her father of her whereabouts.
Of course the bus trip home encounters a few detours. One of them strands the single man and the married woman in the same hotel room for the night. In order to ensure a proper sense of propriety, Peter hangs a blanket between the twin beds with the promise “the wall of Jericho” won’t come tumbling down. Although the cloth barrier between them stays in place, the time they spend together slowly pulls down most of the other prejudices and misunderstandings that divide the pair. While the audience is not surprised at the growing romantic interest between them, there is still the matter of Ellie’s husband…
It is the chemistry between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert that is credited with the success of this simple love story. Despite the negative feelings of both stars (he’d only been cast because MGM Studios was trying to punishment him for past cocky behavior, and she claimed it was the worst movie she’d ever made), the film went on to win five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing/Adaptation). Not too bad for a month’s work (although the post-production crew were busy longer).
The plot was described as feel-good and unexpectedly drew a loyal following in 1934. Today’s viewers may wonder why as they watch the bickering between the strong-willed protagonists, excessive womanly wailing, threats of physical abuse and name-calling. (I, for one, would not appreciate the nickname “Brat”.) Other characters are also verbally berated, scared off by implications of mob violence and one (we are told) is tied to a tree. Additional content concerns include some mild sexual remarks, a hitchhiking woman using her exposed thigh to attract a motorist, and plentiful smoking and drinking.
Still, there is something about the script’s wit, Peter Warne’s chauvinistic chivalry and Ellie Andrews’ stubborn submission, that continues to charm audiences - even those with modern-day sensibilities.
Content Details: Beyond the Movie Ratings...
Violence: Verbal threats are made (usually by men towards woman): sometimes the intent seems serious, sometimes not. Characters belongings are stolen. A small accident disables a vehicle. A reporter blackmails a woman (he’ll tell her father where she is if she doesn’t give him exclusive rights to tell her story). Characters engage in a domestic spat and the woman starts bawling. A man hits a woman. A woman faints because of lack of food. A man hints at possible mob violence to scare another character. A bloody cut is seen, which resulted from a fight (not shown). A character says he has tied a man to a tree.
Sexual Content: A man falls asleep sitting up, and slumps onto the woman beside him. Later a woman falls asleep on a man. A married man engages in pick-up conversation with a woman. A married woman and single man share hotel rooms, but hang a blanket between them to keep things proper. Characters undress before bed—the man’s bare chest is shown, the woman’s underwear is seen. A scream is heard when it is implied a character has accidentally walked in on another who is showering. A woman reveals her thigh to a motorist in a hitchhiking attempt.
Language: Name-calling is abundant.Derogatory terms are used to describe women.
Alcohol / Drug Use: A character drinks to the point of inebriation during times of discouragement, and sometimes becomes aggressive toward others. Characters are shown drinking from a bottle and a flask. Characters smoke cigarettes, cigars and pipes. One character is shown smoking in bed on a couple of occasions. A lit cigarette is carelessly discarded in a pile of hay.
Discussion Ideas: Talk About the Movie...
How does Peter Warne treat Ellie Andrews? Does the fact that she is spoiled and demanding justify his gruff behavior? Do you think depictions like these were more acceptable in the 1930s than they would be today? Although portrayals may be different now, are woman treated with any better respect in modern movies?
What do you think accounts for the unexpected success of this movie?
Learn more about the unusual flying machine that appears in this movie, the Kellett K-3 Autogiro.
This movie is based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams.
Home Video Notes
Release Date: 18 November 2014
It Happened One Night releases to home video (Blu-ray) with the following special features:
- New conversation between critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate
- Frank Capra’s American Dream, a 1997 feature-length documentary
- Director Frank Capra’s first film, the 1922 silent short The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House
- American Film Institute tribute to Capra from 1982
- An essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme
- And more