Study Guide

It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night Introduction


Release Year: 1934

Genre: Comedy, Romance

Director: Frank Capra

Writers: Robert Riskin, Samuel Hopkins Adams (book)

Stars: Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable


"Now that's my whole plot in a nutshell. A simple story for simple people."

So says reporter Peter Warne during the first night he spends with Ellie Andrews, an heiress who's on the run from her controlling dad. But don't get the wrong idea: Elle's a fast-talker but a respectable gal, and this isn't that kind of sleepover.

What kind of sleepover is it, you wonder? Read on for the full story, but here's the long and short of it:

The first night that Peter spends with Ellie—sex-free, this being 1934 and all—is practice for a lifetime of happiness. But before the hero and heroine can live happily ever after, It Happened One Night makes the dynamic duo overcome obstacle after hilarious obstacle until they're actually ready for each other.

Will love really conquer all? That's the question that will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way through the movie. At the same time, though, It Happened One Night keeps you laughing—and loving the lovebirds all the more for the misadventures they go through. There's a bad dad to turn good, rides to hitch, a search party to evade, policemen to trick, a marriage to annul, a thief to outwit, a perv to scare off, and so much more.

Sounds fun, right? We thought so—and the Academy certainly agreed back in the day when It Happened One Night was released. In 1935, the film totally won all five major Oscars. That means it took home the prizes for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was the first—and for a long time, the only—film in Academy Awards history to do so. That alone makes It Happened One Night a movie milestone.

But there's more, of course: The film continues to fascinate everyone from film buffs to philosophers. It even gets a shout-out in Sex and the City 2. And if that's not a testament to a flick's historical importance, we really don't know what is.

The movie's not all high jinks and wedding cake, though. It was made at the height of the Great Depression, after all, and it tackles some heavy themes, including injustice, privilege, and poverty. Sure, it's a rom-com—the very first one, in fact—but it's a rom-com that's not afraid to get serious at times. 

The ride is bumpy, but the reward's more than worth the wait.

What is It Happened One Night About and Why Should I Care?

It Happened One Night is the ultimate rom-com—which is saying something, because it's also basically the first. That's right: This baby is one of the first Hollywood classics to combine romance and comedy into that specific genre we all know and love. (We know you love it, too. Don't be ashamed.)

It Happened One Night broke new ground by letting its leading man and woman be both funny and dreamy, rather than assigning all the laughs to supporting actors, as previous films had. (See this video for more on this claim to fame.) If you love rom-coms today, then Frank Capra's original will give you a new appreciation for the genre and show you where it came from.

The film earned an unprecedented Oscar haul in 1935. Both lead actors, together with the film's director, producer, and screenwriter, all got nods from the almighty Academy, and they all won. Never before had a film swept the Oscars in that way, and it's only happened twice more in the history of the awards—which tells you something about just how special It Happened One Night is. (Because we know you're curious, the other two are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Silence of the Lambs.)

But if that's not reason enough for you to study the film, maybe this will be: It's a total blast. It Happened One Night is a vehicle for its two unforgettable stars, whose antics are surprisingly undated. Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable remain as hilarious now as they were in the 1930s, and their story speaks as powerfully to the age of Occupy Wall Street as it did to audiences during the Great Depression.

They're Romeo and Juliet for the twentieth century; they're Shakespeare served light—but not too light, since their story brings them, and us, face-to-face with some pretty dark realities. And it's by facing these realities with such openness, honesty, and love that Capra's lovebirds teach a lesson for the ages.

Trivia

It Happened One Night is often considered a quintessential screwball comedy; it's even credited with starting the whole screwball trend. But film scholars continue to argue about whether the label "screwball" really applies to Capra's masterpiece. Check out this conversation between two critics to get a sense of what's in the name "screwball" and what the controversy's all about.

Bugs Bunny and Clark Gable may not seem to have that much in common, but Bugs's carrot-eating technique is totally based on the way Gable chows down in It Happened One Night. (Source.)

Farran Smith Nehme notes that Capra had a hard time finding an actress to play Ellie. Several candidates turned down the part before Colbert accepted it—but only on the condition that she earn $50,000, a pretty penny in 1934 (close to a million in today's dollars). (Source.)

It Happened One Night Resources

Websites

Making the Cut
The Criterion Collection's website includes a full-length film essay and a bunch of other fun features that will let you learn more about this classic rom-com.

Frank's Fan Site
And here's a site devoted entirely to Frank Capra, for the obsessed among you.

Book or TV Adaptations

Critics Welcome
There's a whole critical literature now on Capra's film; it's just that much of a classic. Here you'll find an introduction that's also an in-depth look at the making and meaning of It Happened One Night.

Articles and Interviews

Screwball Showdown
For a brief but informative discussion of what makes a "screwball comedy" so screwy, check this out.

"It Happened One Decade"
For an informative and fascinating essay that considers the place of Capra's film in the broader culture of the Depression-era U.S., follow this link.

Video

Showing Some Skin
Our Number One Favorite Scene from the film happens to be one of the most famous scenes in Capra's corpus, and maybe in film history; it even found its way into Sex and the City 2.

Bus Ride or Bust
Doesn't this look like so much fun?

Audio

It Happened One Night on the Radio
After the film's release, It Happened One Night was made into a radio play, and, lucky for us, that play can still be heard online, here.

Soundtrack
And the film's soundtrack is still available for purchase. It'll cost you, but you don't have to be quite as rich as Ellie's dad to invest in a CD of your own.

Images

Lobby Cards
Lobby cards were Technicolor supplements to black-and-white features shown in movie theaters. And as the cards for It Happened One Night show, they were stunningly beautiful.

Hold That Gesture
For some great publicity stills, look no further.