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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 10 January 2011 16:25|
1934 was the first year that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences matched the Oscar eligibility period to a single calendar year, allowing the designation of a single Best Picture winner for each year henceforth.
1934's winner, It Happened One Night, was considered an underdog but went on to be the first film to sweep all major Academy Awards categories, winning Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adaptation.
(Cult)ure previously covered the film in April Yorke's article, "Hate Romantic Comedies? Blame Frank Capra." As Yorke notes in her article, It Happened One Night all but singlehandedly gave birth to the screwball romantic comedy, known more colloquially these days as the (often dreaded) Rom Com.
When Ellie, a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) on the run, crosses paths with Peter, a street-wise newspaper reporter (Clark Gable), a road trip ensues in which class distinction and repressed sexuality results in sparkling comedic banter.
Unlike previous Best Picture winners, the movie was not a big budget prestige film, and Columbia Pictures was considered a 'Poverty Row' studio at the time. Several actors had turned down the script, and even its eventual leads accepted only reluctantly and were weary of the film's potential. Directed under the masterful hand of Frank Capra and propelled by wonderful Oscar-winning performances by Colbert and Gable, the little comedy connected with American audiences in a big way.
The United States was five years into the Great Depression when It Happened One Night was released. Poverty and destitution were rampant. One in four Americans was unemployed. Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless, and drought and erosion had led to the Dust Bowl in the Midwest the previous year. Yorke accurately describes the film as a "wrong side of the tracks" romance, and, while the film is not explicitly about the Depression, its impact on the story structure is prevalent throughout.
It is the story's working class focus that likely led to much of its appeal amongst audiences at the time of its release. Ellie is a wealthy heiress who leaves her comfortable and pampered life behind and, in doing so, discovers the joys of the common man. At a time when most of America took enjoyment where ever they could find it, It Happened One Night celebrated the simple pleasures of a good piggyback ride, a doughnut dunked in coffee at breakfast, and the crunch of a raw carrot. Ellie's financé flies around in a personal autogyro, but it is on a bumpy and crammed bus with Peter that she has the most fun while singing and laughing with the other riders. Money and prestige leave her miserable, but, while standing in line for a shower at motel and hitching across the country (as so many were doing in 1934), she finds happiness and love.
It Happened One Night's legacy lives on in the genre that it birthed and tropes that it forged, but also in a number of classic scenes remembered and recreated time and time again for the last 70 years.
An homage to the hitchhiking scene in which Ellie stops a car by pulling up her skirt was seen as recently as last summer's Sex and the City 2. The 'walls of Jericho' sequence, in which Peter separates a shared room with a hanging blanket, was recreated in virtually every late 80s/early 90s sitcom. A number of characters and aspects of the film supposedly influenced the development of several Looney Toons characters (including the raw carrot chomping Bugs Bunny), and, of course, there is the sequence in which Gable removes his shirt to reveal bare chest, instigating a significant drop in undershirt sales and usage.
It Happened One Night gave Gable and Colbert the only Best Actor/Actress wins of their career, Capra his first Oscar, and lifted Columbia out of the ranks of poverty row, and helped establish it has an A-list studio. As Yorke notes in "Blame Capra," today the rom com is much maligned, but, in its heyday, it made for quite the film!
Next: More Clark Gable, as he takes to the seas in Mutiny on the Bounty.
First comedy to win Best Picture.
Tags: cinema, clark gable, claudette colbert, frank capra, it happened one night, jest, oscars project, rom com