A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1934 – It Happened One Night
Every film student will have this come up in one of their intro classes. It’s impossible for it to not. This film pretty much represents the epitome of the “escapist” film, as America was knee-deep in the Depression.
This film also, to me, always represented the first time Hollywood got it right. That is – before this, you have the transition to sound, and you have pre-Code, and Hollywood still hasn’t put together that perfect formula where you tell a sound film with a story that works all the way through, and tells a story that doesn’t go overboard with the stuff that people think is too obscene or whatever.
This film was really the first one (to me) you can point to that’s like, “Yes, this is the total package, and this represents the idea of what classical Hollywood storytelling is.”
The film is your typical screwball comedy. Characters meet, dislike each other, end up stuck together through various wacky scenarios, and despite their best efforts, end up falling in love. And it’s hilarious.
The real great thing about this movie is that nobody wanted to make this movie. Myrna Loy and Miriam Hopkins were offered Claudette Colbert’s part, and they both turned it down. Apparently the script changed drastically by the time the film got done, but even so, no one wanted it. Everyone turned it down. Bette Davis wanted it, but Warners wouldn’t loan her out. Carole Lombard wanted it, but had scheduling conflicts. (Actual ones.) Finally, they offered it to Colbert, who said no, because her first film was with Capra, and she hated the experience so much she vowed she’d never work with him again. Then she said she’d do it, but only if her salary was doubled and they finished it quickly so she could go on vacation.
Meanwhile, Gable is put on the film basically as a punishment. They wanted him to do another movie and he said no, so they deliberately loaned him to Columbia, then a minor studio, for what was essentially thought of as a minor comic role. Most people say that’s not true, but Capra always said Gable wanted nothing to do with the movie.
So they start shooting, and immediately Gable and Colbert hate the script, which apparently brought them together as friends. And apparently Capra turned this into a light, fun set because of that.
And when it was over, Colbert apparently told people she’d just finished “the worst picture in the world.” And when it came out first-run, it did all right, but then when it went to secondary houses (which are the cheaper theaters attended by regular people), it became a huge hit. Word of mouth was huge. That’s why this is known as a Depression-era escapist hit. The prestige theaters and reviewers were like, “What the fuck is this?” but the average person, who can barely afford movies at the time, they saw it and thought it was the greatest thing ever. And everyone else had to reconsider their opinions. To the point where the film swept at the Oscars (somehow), and, as we all know, was the first film to win the “Big Five.” And we all consider this a masterpiece comedy even today. It’s almost the quintessential romantic comedy.
And I’ll say, that even though my favorite film of all time was released this same year, I still chose this film as the definitive film of that year. Because, how could I not? And also… it really is that important and that definitive of 1934.