The Oscar Project 1934: It Happened One Night

1934-it-happened-one-night-posterIt Happened One Night was the first of the best picture winners that I’d seen before. It had been a few years since my last viewing but after watching the previous six winners I was immediately struck with how absolutely special this film was and still is.

It’s the original buddy road picture. The Blues Brothers. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Midnight Run. Thelma and Louise. Dumb and Dumber.

It’s the original fish-out-of-water picture. Trading Places. Private Benjamin. My Cousin Vinny.

The original rom-com. Too many to name…

Each one of these films and countless others shares DNA markers with It Happened One Night.

It is a true original in every way and it was the first of only 3 films* to ever sweep the Oscars Big Five (picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay). It wouldn’t happen again for more than 40 years.

Right out of the gate Claudette Colbert as Ellen Andrews (a pampered heiress on the run from her father back into the arms of her would-be husband) is pure dynamite.

Not to be outdone Clark Gable enters as newsman Peter Warne with all the seeds of greatness that would blossom into his Hollywood legend.

These two are spectacular together with on-screen chemistry few in the history of film have achieved. Each has impeccable comedic timing and delivery. They have the benefit of an absolutely brilliant script. The dialogue is sharp, funny and smart.

Every beat of the script is on point, natural and transitions perfectly from one scene to the next. Nothing is contrived, forced or unbelievable.

Most impressively Ellen and Peter move from complete strangers to a couple in love without any of the ham-handed nonsense so many modern films feel compelled to employ. Can you imagine a romantic comedy today that doesn’t ever have even a kiss between its two leads?!? Not a single one! It doesn’t need it.

The third act is full of heart while avoiding all the pitfalls of lazy story-telling. It doesn’t lean on misunderstandings, lies or artificial adversaries. As the old screenwriting adage goes, it puts its heroes up a tree and throws rock at them.

This is a flawless film. It isn’t the greatest of all time but it is among them still to this day.

The Big Five Oscars won by It Happened One Night were the only five nominations it received making it one of only four best picture winners to win all of its nominations**.

Frank Capra’s vision for It Happened One Night shines through on every frame of this film. He understood exactly what he wanted, even if at times the actors didn’t. Reportedly Claudette Colbert thought the film would be a disaster. Kudos to her for not letting that affect her performance.

The cultural impact of this film was remarkable.

When Clark Gable removed his dress shirt to reveal his bare chest beneath, undershirt sales in America plummeted.

If you haven’t seen this film but grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons you might find Peter Warne a little familiar. He was part of the inspiration for the cartoon rabbit, carrot munching and all.

A lot has been made of George Clooney’s persona (and rightfully so), that he is the modern embodiment of old-school Hollywood. Often he is called our generation’s Cary Grant. But that is an incomplete analog without including Clark Gable.

I have resisted making any recommendation on any of these Oscar winners but I’ll let it slide this time. Do yourself a favor and watch It Happened One Night. It’s a true timeless classic.

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*One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs also swept the Big Five.
**Gigi, The Last Emperor and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King also went undefeated. Grand Hotel and Wings did the same but had only one and two nominations respectively. The other four all had at least 5 nominations.

Watched from DVD collection.


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