The Best Picture Winners: It Happened One Night (1934)

| September 21, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

One of the most persistent complaints about the voting academy is the way they seem so short-sighted about comedy.  Out of the 89 films thus-far selected for the year’s top prize, only six have been flat-out comedies.  Two of those comedies, It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You came out within four years of each other, both won Best Picture, and both earned a Best Director Oscar for Frank Capra.  Neither film is a monument of his best work, but at least It Happened One Night is a happy glimpse of the greatness to come.

The movie was a box office smash and was so popular that it became the first film in history to win Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay – a feat that, to date, has only happened on two other occasions, the other two being One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest in 1976 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1992.

Lauded as the first great screwball comedy It Happened One Night follows the romantic adventures of a wealthy socialite (Claudette Colbert) who runs away from her controlling father and hits the road with a worldly-wise reporter (a miscast Clark Gable).  It is hard to dislike It Happened One Night.  As a road picture, it is bouncy with moments that we remember like the hitchhiking scene, the walls of Jericho, and the sing-a-long on a crowded bus, but for a Capra film, it seems a little innocuous.

Capra’s best films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life feature great comedy wrapped in social commentary.  His best work is challenging and thoughtful but this film seems a little feather-weight.  Both Gable and Colbert won Oscars for their performances but the movie really lies in Colbert’s hands.  She has a warm presence on screen but the two together don’t generate a genuine energy and the romantic moments feel a little forced.  That disconnection may have come from Gable whose presence in this film was a punishment by the studio bosses for his off-screen behavior.  Legend has it, he showed up on the set the first day remarking “Okay, let’s get this over with.”  That cynicism shows in his performance.

Dismissing Gable’s inattendance, It Happened One Night is a sweet film, a fun adventure even if doesn’t ring necessarily essential.  I have often wondered if I may have liked it more if it didn’t have the mantel of Best Picture hanging over it.  Perhaps I could take solace in the fact that this movie laid the groundwork for the genre of romantic comedies to come – the entire wake of films about squabbling lovers from different backgrounds who fall into each other’s arms in the last reel.  It’s a good formula that I think would get better over time.


About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.