Oscar season is upon us and we are all wondering who will take home the big ones: Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress. In 1935, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT was the first film ever to win all four (in addition to Best Writer/Adaptation). No surprise: it was the smash hit of 1934. The film was 24 carat “Capra-corn:” a spoiled heiress on the run, a reporter who can’t catch a break, and a bumpy bus ride that lands the exclusive story of a lifetime (quite literally) in the reporter’s lap. Seizing the opportunity, the reporter Peter (Clark Gable) helps the snobbish Ellie (Claudette Colbert) survive the foreign ways of the common man as she tries to rendezvous and elope with her lover. He wants the exclusive on her story, and she realizes she must comply if she doesn’t want her daddy Alexander to find her. Peter is rough and unapologetic as he educates the society girl on how to survive when you are broke. Thus, the comically unfortunate journey of these unlikely companions begins.
The heiress, Ellie, is not a very likable person. The audience laughs at her complete ignorance of basic things, and scoffs at her haughtiness. However, there is a key moment in which our concept of Ellie changes fundamentally. On a bus, a woman passes out and her son yells for her to wake up. Through tears, he confesses that they have run out of money and food. This distressing scene is an acute reminder that the Hollywood version of 1934 where everyone is managing to get by is a fabrication. There are people who are not surviving and can do nothing about it. Just as this realization hits home for the audience, we see Ellie give the boy the rest of her money. This is the first time we see her concerned about anyone else, and her decision produces a striking moment. Because of her generosity, she and Peter are now both broke. However, instead of laughing at her impracticality, we are proud, and begin to have hope that she may mature by film’s end.
There is a nice balance of whimsy and drama as the romance takes a backseat for most of the film. We know Peter and Ellie will get together in the end and the film doesn’t deny this inevitable union. It could have been a lighthearted romance where the reporter reforms the heiress and hilarity ensues as they hitchhike to a happy ending, but it isn’t. The plot is filled with one hardship after another. It is quite unpredictable and the plot is more genuine and realistic that one might expect.
It is this sense of authenticity and realism that makes this a classic Capra film. You are not just watching a film, you are watching a reflection of 1934. Throughout the film there are several minor characters that personify the Great Depression. They provide context and add gravitas to the film, and a 1934 audience would identify with these minor characters. These are people without riches to fall back on, and these are the people that Capra champions again and again. From Mr. Smith to Mr. Deeds, Martin Vanderhof, or George Bailey, Capra wants you to know that the Everyman is as important as the richest man in town.
After a lot of bad luck (and some laughs), we finally arrive at the romance. Peter and Ellie stop for the night at a farm and sleep by a haystack. Up until this point, Ellie’s relationship with Peter has been marked by dependence rather than romance. But Capra changes all that with some hay and good lighting. The scene in the hay is the first explicit romantic scene between the characters. Peter is moving some hay while
Ellie watches, light reflecting off the hay and backlighting her hair. In a medium close-up of Ellie, there is the slightest light in her eyes, a soft glow over her visage. As Peter comes over to tuck her in, we get a close-up of their faces close together. They make eye contact and it looks like he might kiss her. In that moment, the light reflects off her lip and all we want is for him to make the light disappear with a kiss. Hollywood has conditioned us to yearn for a kiss when people are bathed in light (think couples kissing in front of the sunset). We want the kiss to extinguish that light, but the moment passes and the ember is gone. The Hollywood production code was just starting to be enforced in 1934, and that meant no steamy love scenes. Kissing was permitted under the code, but to have a man and woman kiss just before they sleep alone together in a hay stack, would undoubtedly lead the audience to certain unseemly conclusions. So there is no kiss in the hay scene, but Capra still gives us that charged moment, the great potential of a kiss. That bit of light on Ellie’s mouth leaves us yearning for a kiss for the rest of the film. But before we get it, the romance plot suddenly kicks in and the film ends in a whirlwind. We never get the satisfaction of that kiss, but we do get a great ride. And after such a great film, we aren’t disappointed.