2014 has brought about the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, which has been met with much deserving fanfare. No doubt, Rhett Butler is who draws the majority of people into Clark Gable fandom these days.
But this year brings about another important film milestone: the 80th anniversary of It Happened One Night, the little-film-that-could, one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made and the first to win the Academy Award “grand slam”: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. It is safe to say that if Clark had never played Rhett Butler, he would be remembered best for Peter Warne.
Director Frank Capra, one of the most renowned directors in the history of cinema, stated once that “a film about the making of It Happened One Night would have been much funnier than the picture itself.” I don’t know about that, but it sure would make a funny satire about movie making.
It Happened One Night started out as a magazine short story called “Night Bus” that was bought by the lowly, “poverty row” Columbia Pictures for a mere $5,000. Capra, not yet at the top of his game and known mostly at that time for the pre-code dramas he made starring Barbara Stanwyck, was not pleased about being assigned to direct this little bus film and argued with studio head Harry Cohn about it. He went off to Palm Springs with screenwriter Robert Riskin to try and squeeze some magic out of a tired old bus story.
Columbia didn’t have the payroll to house big names, so they always struck deals with other studios to get stars in their pictures. Capra and Cohn were excited to get some of MGM’s roster to be in their little bus picture. One of the first to turn down the script was Myrna Loy who recalled later, “Oh, I’ve taken flak for refusing that picture. Frank gave it to me for years…But let me say, here and now, they sent me the worst script ever, completely different from the one they shot. I’ve had others corroborate that… That girl was unplayable as originally written. I mean, we’re in the middle of the Great Depression and she’s running away because being rich bores her.” Her refusal was followed quickly by Constance Bennett, Miriam Hopkins and Margaret Sullavan. At the same time, Columbia was also making Twentieth Century and for that they were borrowing a certain Miss Carole Lombard, so they struck a deal to borrow Claudette Colbert for “Night Bus” as well. She balked at first, as she was due for a lengthy vacation. They were only able to secure her by promising a $50,000 paycheck and a written promise that the film would be completed in under four weeks.
It’s been widely reported that Clark Gable was sent to Columbia to star in IHON as a punishment for sleeping around with Joan Crawford despite Louis B. Mayer’s objections, and for missing weeks of filming due to a severe blood infection and causing production delays on Dancing Lady. Some reports say that isn’t true, that it wasn’t a punishment, it was just a deal between MGM and Columbia. Either way, Clark wasn’t happy. Robert Montgomery had already been secured and the contracts were being drawn up when suddenly Mayer withdrew his offer of Montgomery and replaced it with Gable.
Capra was at first elated to being offered Clark to star in his little bus film. But after his first meeting with the MGM star, he rightfully soured on the idea of Clark as the leading man. Capra remembered vividly his first encounter with Clark:
My open doorway darkened; tall, square-shouldered Gable stood there swaying, hat rakishly tilted over his eyes. Evidently, he had stopped at every bar between MGM and Gower Street.
“Is thish Mishter Frank Capra’s office?”
“Yes, Mr. Gable. I’m Frank Capra. Come in, please, come in.”
“Gla-ad to meet cha. Likewise.” He headed for a kitchen chair and plopped himself on it. I held my breath. The chair groaned, but didn’t break. Oh, was he loaded!…He cleared his throat with a disgusted belch. Then he focused on me.
“Well-l, what’s the poop, shkipper–besides me?” He was not only boiled, he was steamed.
“Well, Mr. Gable, I–”
“That son-of-a-bitch Mayer,” he cut in. “I always wanted to see Siberia, but damn me–I never thought it would smell like this. Blech-h-h!”
My insides were curdling. I picked up a script and riffled it. “Mr. Gable, you and I are supposed to make a picture out of this. Shall I tell you the story or would you rather read the script by yourself?”
“Buddy,” he said in his tough-guy drawl, “I don’t give a [expletive] what you do with it.”
There being no handy rebuttal to that conversation stopper, I mumbled something about my Siberia being MGM, tucked the script under his armpit and suggested he read it between drinks. He swayed to his feet, looked down at me, and giggled drunkenly, “Hee hee-e-e! Sez you.” He wobbled out the door, hit both sides of it, then stumbled off, singing, “They call her frivilous Sa-a-al, a peculiar kinf of a–hey, you guys!” this last came to some Colombians in the courtyard, “Why aren’t you wearing parkas in Siberia?”
That was my first meeting with Clark Gable and, I hoped, my last.
Not the best first impression, but Capra’s opinion of Clark changed after filming began. “Clark turned out to be the most wonderful egg. He just had a ball. What I believe is that he was playing himself, and maybe for the only time in his career. That clowning, boyish, roguish he-man was Gable. He was shy, but a lot of fun with people he knew. He was very sensitive about those God-damned ears, but he made jokes about them. After a shot, he’d ask, ‘What’d they get–an ear?’ He didn’t look like anyone else. It was not only physical; he had mannerisms that were all his own; ways of standing, smoking–things like that–and a great flair for clothes. Whatever came natural to him, I let him do.”
Despite it’s rough start, the set of the film turned out to be an easygoing one, with improvising encouraged.
The story is of Peter Warne, a cocky newspaperman who has just been fired, encountering runaway heiress Ellie Andrews on a night bus to New York from Miami. Peter realizes her identity and befriends her so he can get the exclusive story. Along the way, after masquerading as man and wife at an auto camp, sleeping in a field, hitch hiking and stealing a car, they fall in love. When Peter leaves Ellie at a motel in the middle of the night to try and get some money from his old boss to marry her, she mistakenly thinks he has left her for good and calls her father (Walter Connolly) and husband to pick her up. Peter is heartbroken and so is Ellie. She agrees to her father’s wishes that she re-marry her husband, since they were not married by a priest. On her re-wedding day, Peter shows up to collect money from her father for what he spent on her during the trip. He admits to her father that he loves her. Her father tells Ellie and as she is going down the aisle, she takes off to be with Peter.
There are so many great scenes, from the Walls of Jericho and “Perhaps you’re interested in how a man undresses.” to singing “The Flying Trapeze,” to hitch-hiking and a lesson in doughnut dunking, the film is no doubt a classic.
The film began shooting the last week of November and shot the last scene on December 23, 1933, costing a mere $325,000 to make. Claudette set out for vacation and Clark headed back to MGM, both certain that they’d just had a fun time making a sure flop. “Clark and I left wondering how the movie would be received. It was right in the middle of the Depression. People needed fantasy, they needed splendor and glamour, and Hollywood gave it to them. And here we were, looking a little seedy and riding on our bus.” Claudette recalled.
IHON wasn’t an overnight sensation. It received good press reviews and the numbers were steady; but it was the word of mouth from moviegoers that brought in the receipts. It ended up earning $1.1 million domestically, a large sum for a little bus picture made by a little studio.
Despite its success, it still was a shock that the film won all the major Academy Awards. Claudette famously had to accept her award in her traveling suit as she had been on her way to the train station when she heard she had won!
The film changed Clark’s life for many reasons. The first being, of course, that is was his first Oscar nomination and only win; ultimately it was the only major film award he would ever win. Secondly, the film skyrocketed his popularity. Before this, he was steadily gaining fans, but was mostly used as a “gigolo” for MGM’s female stars, playing second fiddle to Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. IHON showed he could hold his own. Third, it proved he had real star power–just by removing his shirt and showing he had no undershirt underneath, sales of undershirts sharply declined!
Lastly, this film holds a special place in my heart. Years ago, I was just dipping my toe into classic films. I was flipping through the channels and TCM was on commerical and it said IHON was next. I remembered reading that Clark Gable (who was little more to me at that point than Rhett Butler) had won an Oscar for it but other than that I knew nothing about it. Little did I know that the film I was about to watch not only became one of my favorite films of all time, but it can be credited with this website as if it wasn’t for Clark’s absolutely wonderful performance capturing my heart, I wouldn’t be the Gable fan I am today.