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‘It Happened One Night’ at 90: The film that defined the romantic comedy

‘It Happened One Night’ at 90: The film that defined the romantic comedy
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934), publicity still. Image: Wikimedia Images

'It Happened One Night' is one of only three films to nab the Oscar “big five”, winning prizes for best actor, actress, adapted screenplay, director and picture.

The renowned British philosopher A.N. Whitehead once said the entire history of European philosophy can be described as a series of footnotes to Plato. I would argue the entire history of the romcom is a series of footnotes to Frank Capra’s cynical romantic fable, It Happened One Night. As the film celebrates its 90th anniversary, it’s due a revisit.

It Happened One Night tells the story of a mismatched pairing between wealthy heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and cynical journalist Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who meet on a Greyhound bus in southern Florida bound for New York City. Ellie has abandoned her sheltered upbringing to elope with a playboy fiancé. Peter, on the other hand, is a down-on-his-luck journalist looking for his latest scoop.

In a move that will surprise absolutely nobody, Ellie and Peter don’t stay mismatched for long. Indeed, after a few shared adventures, the two start finding qualities in one another they hadn’t noticed before.

I shan’t spoil exactly how those events unfold, but it is unlikely to shock anyone with even a passing knowledge of romcom tropes. But don’t confuse familiarity for cliché. Far from drawing from well-worn tropes, It Happened One Night charts the terrain within which all modern romcoms now seek to journey.

The secret to the film’s success

The film was a sensation on its release in 1933, becoming a star-making vehicle for its director, Frank Capra (who would go on to direct other classics including It’s a Wonderful Life). It is one of only three films in history to nab the Oscar “big five”, winning prizes for best actor, actress, adapted screenplay, director and picture.

The two pictures with which it shares this accolade, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), highlight its achievement even further. The film won over the hearts and minds of a critical establishment who have always privileged the wrought suffering of drama over the seemingly lighter pleasure of comedy.

The film’s success can be attributed to simple but important things like the quality of its script, the lightness of its direction, and the charisma of its two leads. But there were other factors at play as well, namely the social and economic context in which it was made.

Released during the height of the Great Depression, the film’s class consciousness struck a chord with audiences seeking light relief from difficult circumstances in the story of two young, attractive people trying to traverse the country with only four dollars to their name. Economic deprivation has never looked so fun.

A classic screwball comedy

It is also a classic screwball comedy, a genre noted for its risqué approach to gender and sexuality. It was released only a few months before the implementation of the infamous Hays Code, Hollywood’s strict rules on morality which censored what filmmakers could and could not show onscreen for decades.

Aware of the potential for scandal in having its two leads share a number of motel rooms, the film’s screenwriter, Robert Riskin, transformed this source of tension into one of the film’s most charming plot lines.

Every night, to appease Ellie’s worries, Peter constructs a makeshift curtain he labels “the walls of Jericho”. This literally splits their lodgings in half to keep the couple as far apart as possible. And the film’s climax doesn’t half have fun when those walls come tumbling down, metaphorically and literally.

But if the film is timely, it is also timeless. There were plenty of screwball comedies made during this era, many of which are wonderful films in their own right. But It Happened One Night exceeds all others in terms of its lasting influence, setting a template not only for future romcoms but establishing a precedent that the genre continues to try to live up to this day.

Clark Gable’s Oscar for “It Happened One Night” is displayed at “Meet the Oscars”, an exhibit featuring the 50 Oscar statuettes that will be presented at the 78th Academy Awards, at Hollywood and Highland on February 10, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Romcoms might not quite be the same box office phenomena they once were. But, judging by Netflix’s recently published viewing figures, it is interesting to see how films like Your Place or Mine (2023) and TV shows like Emily in Paris (2020-2024) or the South Korean series Business Proposal (2022) rely on a template not too far away from Ellie and Peter’s famous journey.

Fans of such works, and the broader holistic healing powers of the romcom, would be wise to check out where it all began. DM 

This story was first published in The Conversation. Alexander Sergeant is a Senior Lecturer in Film & Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth.

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