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It Happened One Night

Oscar is notorious for hating comedies, but that hasnít always been the way. One of the first (if not the first) romantic comedies not only won Best Picture, it won the grand slam (best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, and best screenplay), the first time a movie turned that trick.

The movie is 1934ís It Happened One Night. Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, the rebellious daughter of a rich businessman who disapproves of her choice in men. She runs away from her father and hops onto a bus from Miami to New York. Sitting next to her on the crowded bus is Peter Warren, played by Clark Gable. Heís a reporter who has just quit his job with a New York tabloid in a drunken phone call to his boss. At the first stop a thief runs away with all her money, so suddenly the rich girl is entirely out of her element. She agrees to travel with Warren because he can help her get to where sheís going. He wants to travel with her because it gives him the biggest story of the year, and a chance to taunt his former boss with telegrams at every stop.

Now you know where this is going. I know where this is going. A blind man could see where this is going, but back in 1934 this scenario hadnít been played out hundreds of times. A lot of elements here might seem trite now, but they were new then, from the road comedy where the original means of travel fails, to the romantic comedy where the two lead characters initially dislike each other, but eventually fall in love. We even have the debut of the hitchhiking gimmick where the man fails to get a lift using his thumb, while the woman succeeds by showing some leg.

Some other things are quite familiar too. Peter has a fondness for carrots, a creep on the bus named Shapeley has a tendency to speak quickly, and King Westley is about as romantic as a French skunk. Evidently this was one of Fritz Frelengís favorite movies, and he used many elements of it when he created The Looney Toons. Thereís even a reference to a guy named Bugs.

Even though this movie is very predictable to the modern viewer, the execution is still very good. Colbert and Gable are excellent in their roles, as are Walter Connolly in a limited role as Ellenís father and Roscoe Karns as creepy bus passenger Oscar Shapeley.

No one had high hopes for this movie at the time. Reportedly on the first day of filming Gable muttered "letís get this over with" as he walked onto the set. Colbert hated the movie so much she didnít attend the Oscars. The result blew everyone away. Columbia had been a low rent also ran studio up to that point. They got Gable on loan for this movie from MGM as punishment for off-screen behavior, something the bigger studios did quite a bit at the time to teach their stars a little humility. However the success of this movie took Columbia from the bottom of the barrel up to the ranks of the elite. It was their first best picture winner, and theyíve had their fair share since then. (None since 1987 however, but I may be rooting for Superbad this year.)

Other nominees that year included the crime comedy The Thin Man, which spawned five sequels, the Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers musical The Gay Divorcee, and another Claudette Colbert vehicle Cleopatra. Not nominated was the movie that proves women are evil, Of Human Bondage, which may have been better than any of the movies that earned nominations, except the one movie that won it all. It Happened One Night may not be up to the level of modern comedies, but it is still enjoyable, and it is still better than any other movie released in 1934.


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