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It Happened One Night: Best Picture, 1934

onenightposter.jpgWhen you go back as far as the 7th Annual Academy Awards, things get a bit interesting. You often find yourself dealing with established classics, which are frequently surrounded by fascinating and entertaining trivia. Additionally, the Academy had yet to fully establish many of the standard features of the ceremony, so some things look pretty weird. It Happened One Night was the first of three movies to win an Oscar “grand slam.” It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Clark Gable), and Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), and won all five. The other two films which have accomplished this feat are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs.

That year there were a full dozen nominations for Best Picture (including another favorite of mine, The Thin Man, and several that I’ve never seen or even heard of), but only three apiece for the other four categories in question. Frank Capra won his first director award for this movie. He would go on to win for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take It With You and be nominated for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Clark Gable, meanwhile, never won again, nor did Claudette Colbert. Both of them hated the script for this movie, and Colbert in particular was convinced that it was terrible. That year there was a significant protest when neither Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage) or Myrna Loy (The Thin Man) received Best Actress nominations. The outcry was enough that the Academy allowed write-in candidates that year. Colbert, convinced that Bette Davis would take the award on a write-in vote, was boarding a train to leave on vacation when her victory was announced. The studio head sent someone to chase her down and haul her back to make an acceptance speech.

In It Happened One Night, Ellie Andrews (Colbert) has eloped with a golddigger and famous pilot, King Westley, against her father’s wishes. Westley is in New York, and Ellie’s father is holding her on his yacht off the coast of Florida. She escapes and embarks on a cross-country trip back to her husband, hoping to evade the veritable army of private investigators trying to track her down amidst a whirlwind of national publicity.

She hasn’t even made it out of Florida when her path crosses with that of Peter Warne (Gable), a tabloid reporter who is in the midst of a tiff with his editor that has left him without employment. Ellie needs an escort, being none too good at taking care of herself (her luggage is almost immediately stolen and she misses her bus at a connecting stop). Peter needs a big story to get back in his editor’s good graces. He thinks she’s a spoiled, stubborn snob. She thinks he’s a rude, vulgar cad. Neither of them will get what they want without the others help, and it’s a long way to New York City.

Do I even need to take this summary any further? Over 70 years later, movies are still endlessly recycling this basic story development. It Happened One Night helped invent the romantic comedy, but that wasn’t all it helped event. This was a favorite movie of Friz Freleng, and largely inspired the character of Bugs Bunny. Perhaps the most interesting features of the whole movie, though, are its fairly scandalous elements. It Happened One Night was released four months before the restrictions of the Production Code became mandatory, and it is highly likely that the censors would have demanded a significantly altered product.

The two lead characters share a private room for the night on multiple occasions. Peter undresses in front of Ellie and threatens to drop his pants. Ellie strips down to a skimpy negligee twice and shows a large chunk of leg to stop a passing car for a ride. An odious character on the bus makes crude insinuations loaded with innuendo. And, of course, the right hon. institution of marriage is generally weakened when Ellie ultimately ditches her husband to (literally) run away with Peter.

I’m not trying to give a Plugged In review here (but you have to admit, I could easily get away with writing for those schmoes). I liked this movie, and the stuff I’m discussing here is obviously quite mild and certainly would never ruffle my feathers . . . but I’ve read the Production Code, and this stuff doesn’t make the cut. I just find it fascinating that by the time It Happened One Night received its 5 Oscars, it was no longer fit to be released in American theaters.

This movie is a true classic, remaining one of the best-known, most influential and most widely seen Best Picture winners of its decade (with the possible exception of Gone With the Wind). It is entertaining and rather funny, a well-constructed composition of great individual scenes. Things may drag a bit towards the end, as the filmmakers pretend that they aren’t going to reach the clearly inevitable outcome, but this is a forgivable flaw.

Claudette Colbert is always charming, and even the minor characters are lots of fun. I, for one, have never really understood Clark Gable’s appeal. I generally find his characters obnoxious, and I understand that he was a rather odious character in real life as well. Nevertheless, he fits pretty well in this role (and in the one or two others for which he is still famous). It Happened One Night has an enormous respect for ordinary, hard-working Americans that worms its way frequently into the dialogue just so we’ll know it’s there. Its disdain for the rich and powerful is nearly unbounded . . . an attitude typical even when there wasn’t a Depression on, but probably all the more pronounced when there was. Fascinating.

My favorite thing about the whole film, though, would probably be its snapshot of the early 1930s: people singing popular songs together on cross-country bus trips (accompanied by the traveling singers with guitars in the back), highway camps for weary travelers complete with cabins and outdoor showers, the art of hitchhiking, sleeping in haystacks by the road . . . In short, an entire lost culture of cross-country travel that has evolved into something very different now. I don’t miss it, but I do enjoy visiting.

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~ by Jared on April 12, 2007.

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