It Happened One Night (1934): Movie Review + Analysis

Worthy Podcast
7 min readMay 5, 2021

Worthy Podcast: Where To Listen

Going into making the podcast and traveling back to the beginning of the Oscars, we knew there were three films that accomplished something great. That achievement is winning the “Big 5” awards at the Academy Awards. That feat entails winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and a Best Original or Adapted Screenplay. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) became the first Best Picture winner to receive all of the “Big 5” awards.

The film was written by Robert Riskin, based on the 1933 short story “Night Bus” written by Samuel Hopkins Adams. It was one of the biggest Box Office successes of 1934, grossing $1.36M in the U.S. Box Office, equivalent to almost $27M today. The Claudette Colbert-Clark Gable leading duo, take this screwball comedy about two of the most unlikely people who end up falling in love to great heights.

The 7th Best Picture Winner

Colbert plays the heiress Ellie Andrews who elopes with another socialite, King Wesley (who we aren’t sure if he is actually a king). She escapes from her father’s (played by Walter Connolly) disapproving grasp by literally jumping ship and swimming to the Florida shores. She jumps on to a night bus where she fights over a seat with newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Their journey starts from here as they travel along the East Coast of the United States hiding from cops, overly interested bus passengers like Oscar Shapeley (played by Roscoe Karns), and learning how to properly dunk doughnuts.

All 5 of the awards the film won are significant because they represent the most important aspects of any film. The Academy was telling us in 1934, that this film is essentially perfect. What is probably the best part though about the film are the performances of Colbert and Gable.

The leading duo were an unlikely pair because of how they came to be a part of the film. Colbert was not the original choice to play Ellie, in fact actresses like Constance Bennett, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis and Maragaret Sullivan were all considered first. Colbert reluctantly accepted after she made strong conditions to take the part that included a double in her salary and the production was completed in four weeks.

Gable himself was put on loan by MGM Studios to Columbia Pictures for It Happened One Night. There are a ton of rumors that include some promiscuous affairs between Gable and MGM leading ladies. However, MGM likes to say that they just did not have a role ready for Gable to slot into, so they lent him to Columbia.

With what we were given in the final cut of the film, you would not have imagined there was such stress behind the production. Colbert and Gable’s chemistry is some of the best you’ll ever see. Their quick dialogue and ability to playoff not just their words but their body movements as well. You can feel the emotional intensity between them throughout each scene, it makes it seem like they are really in love.

Their bodies play a big role thematically in the film because of the pre-code nature of the production. The film came out 4 months prior to the strict enforcement of the Hays Production Code that enforced stricter moral practices on film sets. Fortunately though, we got an unfiltered film that talks about sexuality and gender roles. This was something unique for a film this early on in the history of Cinema.

The most prevalent sexual moment comes during a scene when Ellie and Peter are trying to hitchhike. Peter fails to secure a ride using his old faithful thumb technique, a phallic image. Ellie takes a crack at tracking down a car by lifting her skirt to reveal the top of her thigh. This immediately stops the first oncoming car to create one of the most iconic images of the pre-code era. The whole scene is quite hilarious and well edited by Gene Havlick, the film’s editor.

Another scene that plays into the sexuality of the characters, displays the performances of the actors, and shows the prowess of the Capra-Riskin combo is when Ellie and Peter have to pretend to be married in front of detectives looking for the escaped heiress. Quickly, Peter and Ellie gather themselves and perform one of the most comedic moments of the film as they bicker back-and-forth.

This drives the detectives away not wanting to get involved in the seemingly dysfunctional couples fight. Right after they leave, Peter congrats Ellie on her quick thinking and does something peculiar for a leading Hollywood man. He buttons up her blouse. This stands out because instead of Peter trying to make a move on Ellie or be obsessed with her body, he is proud of how quick thinking she is and helps her get dressed. It’s a conscious decision by the actors, Capra, and Riskin to do this physical action, which speaks volumes of how they were thinking of presenting this relationship. Sexuality was important to the filmmakers and displaying it necessary depending on the scene and situation of the characters.

One of our favorite scenes of the film that is not dependent on sexuality is the Man On The Flying Trapeze scene. This scene is based on the folk song of the same name. It is sung by the passengers on the bus that Peter and Ellie are traveling on, which they also join in on. The first thing that stands out is the nature of it being a folk song. The film itself feels folk-esque in the way that it displays the world and people. It feels authentically American, an America that is admittedly not perfect, but it still displays the values that you would hear in folk music.

The song itself is a joyous moment for the passengers of the bus that brings everyone together and symbolizes the hopeful idea of America being one. Peter and Ellie join in to the singing and you can see the happiness coming across their faces as they feel like they are a part of something. Peter enjoys it because he is a black sheep and trying to make something of his life. Ellie enjoys it because she finally gets to experience a world that is not involved in her high class social life she was raised in.

The film comes to a climax when Ellie admits her love for Peter as they are about to finally reach New York City. The way the scene is shot to show off Colbert’s emotions in her face in the dark lighting is intimate and beautiful. The cinematography of the film Joseph Walker masterfully uses low lighting and night scenes throughout the film. Ellie’s feelings confuse Peter, who runs back to New York quickly to get money and return to Ellie to start a life together. Ellie sees this as abandonment and phones her father to be taken back to King Wesley, leaving Peter behind.

The film ends with Peter showing up to Ellie’s home on her wedding day to King Wesley. Peter meets with Ellie’s father asking for the $39.60 he is owed for taking care of her during their journey. He doesn’t want the big reward money that was offered, which confuses Ellie’s father. He questions Peter’s motives revealing at the end of an intense argument that Peter truly loves Ellie. Ellie’s father convinces her in the end that she can run off with Peter and be with him, making everyone happy.

The film’s happy ending is one of the earliest signs of this prototype in Hollywood storytelling for years to come. The influence that It Happened One Night has on romantic comedies is undeniable. All the signs are there and you can’t help but see every one of your favorite modern comedies inside this Best Picture winner.

It’s a film that is unique among all Best Picture winners because of the subject matter for its time, the performances, and brilliant creative direction and writing put into it. It accomplished something only two mother films would go on to do. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence Of The Lambs (1991). Two films that themselves stand out among the collection of Best Picture winners. You can hear more of our breakdown of the film in our 7th episode of the podcast, Worthy.

Is It Happened One Night on Netflix?

No, It Happened One Night is not on Netflix. It is available to rent on Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video.

Why is It Happened One Night a classic?

The film is considered a classic because of the star power of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. Their performances are some of the best on film and each garnered an Academy Award. The film is also one of the earliest successes of director Frank Capra. He would win an Oscar for this film as well as two more films in the Best Director category.

Where was It Happened One Night filmed?

The movie was filmed in Los Angeles, California, using the surrounding valley areas as the films backdrop.

How is It Happened One Night a Screwball Comedy?

A Screwball Comedy is just an early term for Romantic Comedy. The love aspects of the film as well as the comedic moments ties it all together. The “screwball” aspects is an exaggerated term to describe the antics in early Hollywood comedies. They are no different than what you would see in a romantic comedy or even just a comedy in general in modern cinema.

Worthy Podcast: Where To Listen



Worthy Podcast

The breakdown of every Best Picture winner from past to present.