It Happened One Night (1934) is one of the greatest romantic comedies in film history, and a film that has endured in popularity. It is considered one of the pioneering “screwball” romantic comedies of its time, setting the pattern for many years afterwards along with another contemporary film, The Thin Man (1934).
The escapist theme of the film, appropriate during the Depression Era, is the story of the unlikely romantic pairing of a mis-matched couple – a gruff and indifferent, recently-fired newspaper man (Gable) and a snobbish, superior-acting heiress (Colbert) – a runaway on the lam. It is a reversal of the Cinderella story (the heroine rejects her wealthy lifestyle), a modern tale with light-hearted sex appeal in which courtship and love triumph over class conflicts, socio-economic differences, and verbal battles of wit.
The film, composed mostly of a road trip (by bus, car, foot, and by thumb in locales such as bus depots or interiors of buses, and the open road) by the social-class-unmatched couple, contains some of the most classic scenes ever made: the “Walls of Jericho” scene in an auto-camp bungalow so that they can sleep in the same room out of wedlock, the doughnuts-dunking lesson, the hitchhiking scene, the night-time scene on a haystack in a deserted barn, and the dramatic wedding scene. With his good-natured, street-smart, and breezy performance, Gable influenced the un-sale of undershirts by taking off his shirt and exposing his bare chest, and bus travel by women substantially increased as a result of the film.
The madcap film from Columbia Studios (one of the lesser studios) was an unexpected runaway box office sleeper hit (especially after it began to play in small-town theaters), and it garnered the top five Academy Awards (unrivaled until 1975, forty-one years later by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – and then again by The Silence of the Lambs (1991).) It won all five of its nominated categories: Best Picture, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra), and Best Adaptation (Robert Riskin).