I began “Movie of the Month” last July after the site’s first anniversary. I try to bounce around Clark’s filmography as I figured it would be rather dull to start from the beginning and end at his death. The films featured so far:
June: But Not For Me
May: Idiot’s Delight
April: Band of Angels
February: China Seas
January: Hold Your Man
December: Red Dust
November: The Secret Six
October: No Man of Her Own
September: Teacher’s Pet
August: Never Let Me Go
July: Wife vs. Secretary
So, I thought it was fitting to celebrate two years of the site and one year of “Movie of the Months” with a pretty memorable one: Clark’s Oscar winning performance in It Happened One Night.
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 It Happened One Night 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.
Now an essential classic and considered the first screwball comedy, It Happened One Night is the prime example of a sleeper hit. Produced by the “Siberia” of studios by an un-appreciated director and performed by two stars against their will, it seems an unlikely entry into Academy Award history. But with a snappy screenplay and chemistry that burns through the screen, it indeed earns its place in history. Gable is Peter Warne, a cocky newspaperman who has just been fired. On a bus to New York, he meets Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a runaway heiress, on her way to be reunited with her new husband whom her father detests. Peter soon 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 in this film! Of course, nobody can forget the “Walls of Jericho” Peter erects in their shared motor lodge room and him making her uncomfortable by undressing in front of her. (Snopes says the legend that undershirt sales plummeted after Clark appeared without one seems unlikely.)
And Peter displaying to Ellie the “art of hitchhiking” is truly unforgettable.
After his attempts fail (gasp!), Ellie decides to give it a try. “I’ll stop a car,” says Ellie defiantly, “and I won’t use my thumb!” After her baring a shapely leg results in a car schreeching to a halt, Peter retorts bitterly, “Why didn’t you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.”
I also love the scene where they are pretending to be a fighting married couple for some cops that come by looking for Ellie. “QUIT BAWLIN’!”
I remember the first time I saw the film I felt cheated by the ending. We never do get to see Ellie and Peter actually reunite. We only hear the trumpet blow as the “Walls of Jericho” come crumbling down. It’s also interesting to note that Peter and Ellie do not kiss in the film at all. Not one smooch. But yet there is something so romantic about the film and you are left to imagine what it was like when Ellie burst into Peter’s office in her wedding dress to be with him forever. Subtlety that is probably lost on most of today’s modern audiences.
This little-film-that-could went on to sweep the Oscars; the first film to win the “grand slam”: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. A feat that would be unmatched until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 (and later also achieved by Silence of the Lambs in 1989).
Seems so unlikely considering the film’s humble beginnings. In 1933, director Frank Capra was working for the “poverty row” of studios, little Columbia Pictures. The stars at MGM and Warner Brothers looked down their noses at this little studio and definitely none of them wanted to be sent over to make a picture called “Night Bus.” But this was the script Capra had and the film he had to make. Even with the name changed, nobody wanted to star in it.
Myrna Loy was Capra’s first choice for the role of Ellie and she recalled:
Frank had tried to borrow me for his… picture, “It Happened One Night.” I’d refused it and Louis B. Mayer backed me up…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. In fact Bob Montgomery turned down the male lead for the same reason, but no one believes me. 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.
Margaret Sullavan, Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett–all turned it down. After the script was rewritten and rewritten, Claudette Colbert accepted the role. With the two conditions of a huge hike in salary and if filming could be completed in four weeks, before her planned vacation.
But who for the male lead?
After Robert Montgomery turned it down, Capra was surprised that Louis B. Mayer OFFERED him Clark Gable. Even though he knew that being sent to Columbia from MGM was a punishment for Clark (some sources say for turning down too many scripts and wanting more money, others say for disobeying Mayer by continuing his affair with Joan Crawford), Capra took what he could get and had a meeting with Clark at his office at Columbia.
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.
But of course, it wasn’t. And after a few days shooting, Clark got over his “burn” of being “exiled to Siberia” and enjoyed himself on the film. And it shows.
Frank Capra, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable on the set
All of them were shocked when the Academy Award nominations came out and It Happened One Night was nominated for five Oscars. And they were flabbergasted that they WON all five. Claudette Colbert was so sure she wouldn’t win that she didn’t even attend the awards; she was at the train station and had to be summouned back, where she accepted her award in her traveling clothes.
It Happened One Night is a special part of Hollywood history, Clark Gable history, and an overall delightful gem.
It is available remastered on DVD. Read more here and read about Clark’s Oscar here.