Come and celebrate Oscar fever next month by watching the first film ever to win all 5 top Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Gable), Best Actress (Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra), and Best Adaptation (Robert Riskin).
This record Oscar tally for a single film stood until 1975 (Which film topped it?Answers on the night, folks.). And even today, all 204 of the user reviews on Imdb.com give it 8 out of 10 stars or above – suggesting that it has stood the test of time.
It Happened One Night is famous for, among other things, causing sales of men’s under shirts to plummet. Not that I have a vested interest in this (geddit), nut when Gable took off his shirt in the film and revealed that he wore nothing beneath, the public simply followed suit. (Not sure if that’s a joke – Ed.)
This film was also one cause of the 1930 censorship code being enforced more strictly: a scene in an auto-camp bungalow shows the unmarried couple having to sleep in the same room! Then they do the same in a deserted barn haystack! (I will refrain from saying that, for the censors, this was the last straw – – Doh!)
A Cinderella tale in reverse, the film’s madcap story involves a runaway heiress, Ellie Andrews, and the working class, out-of-work reporter, Peter Warne, in what now we might call a road trip. Certainly its theme of escape struck a chord in Depression Era America. Verbal battles of wit between Ellie and Peter triumph over their socio-economic differences when, for example, the working class journalist gives the spoiled heiress lessons in hitchhiking and doughnut-dunking.
Although it would prove to be the studios’ biggest hit until the 1980s (Any guesses with what?), the success of the film surprised Columbia Pictures – especially after playing in small-town America – because as well as challenging censorship frontiers, the film also pioneered a new genre that would become known as screwball comedy.
Originally director Frank Capra (who also co-wrote the script) wanted Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy to play the leads. Instead Clark Gable was loaned from MGM, where he had just refused a role opposite Joan Crawford. Then Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, and Constance Bennett all turned down the role of Ellie before Colbert, whose star was already powerful, agreed to do it while on loan from Paramount (for an extra payment of only $50,000!).
In 1945 and 1956 there were musical remakes of this film: Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) starring Ann Miller, and You Can’t Run Away From It (1956) with Jack Lemmon and June Allyson.
In his memoirs, animator Fritz Freleng claimed the film inspired the creation of three cartoon characters: at one point Gable mentions an imaginary hit-man named Bugs; in one scene Gable also manages to talk while eating a carrot, using a technique only too familiar to us now! (And remember those ears?) Freleng also claimed Pepe LePew was inspired by Ellie’s suave husband-to-be at the beginning of the film; finally, the yelling Yosemite Sam was said to be based on Ellie’s father.
The censor was probably troubled also by Colbert’s previous appearance in The Sign of the Cross (1932). She played a decadent Roman Empress whose nipples caused a sensation (though probably not to her) by being glimpsed beneath the ass’s milk in which she bathed. Colbert had also just come from playing the title role in Cleopatra (1934) and would later refuse to portray such overtly sexualised characters. Indeed she was reluctant to take the role of Ellie and complained to a friend afterwards, “I have just finished the worst picture in the world!”
Despite receiving a nomination for her performance, Colbert decided not to attend the ceremony (confident that she would not win) and instead planned a railroad trip. When she was named winner, studio chief Harry Cohn sent someone to “drag her off” the train (which fortunately had not yet left the station) and take her to the ceremony. She arrived wearing a two-piece travel suit – luckily she had engaged Paramount’s costume designer to make it for her to wear on the trip. So not too shabby, Claudette!
In 1999 Colbert (who died in 1996) was voted the 12th Greatest American Screen Legend by the American Film Institute.