It Happened One Night: A Valentine’s Classic Celebrates 90 Years

Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night has often been dubbed a ‘runaway’ success. While the film was a resounding triumph at the Box Office and would eventually gain status as the first of its kind to ‘sweep’ the Academy Awards, the production was certainly short of having stars in its eyes.

Columbia Pictures doubted its worth, Capra insisted that fresh-faced Clarke Gable, now crowned “King of Hollywood”, was hesitant to partake, and starring actress Claudette Colbert reportedly complained to a friend that she had just “finished the worst picture in the world”.

Yet it endures. The timeless delight of Capra’s screwball is summed up in his main character’s assertion of a “simple story for simple people”. In this case, a whimsical romance of chance.

Although as Capra opens on Ellie Andrews (Colbert), an heiress defiantly diving from her father’s boat, wrapped in nothing but a satin robe, her ordinariness is made comically obsolete. Quite frankly, there’s nothing “simple” about her.

Ellie is joined by Peter (Gable), a cannily, easy-breezy newspaper reporter. Their ‘meet cute’ takes place under the circumstances of chance. She happens to sit on the bus seat that he believes rightfully belongs to him, after having “put up a fair fight” for it.

As they cram to either side of the two-seater, they fall asleep with a large space between them, as large as their difference in opinions and perspectives. Though expectantly, Ellie wakes up to find herself snuggled into Peter’s arm. His coat is draped over her legs to keep her warm and he coyly mocks how she looks “kind of pretty asleep”.

And here we return to the simplicity. Across buses and their stations, pit-stop motels and, (in one famous hitchhiking scene) fences on the side of the road, the film takes place in the mundane. It’s Ellie and Peter’s razor-sharp bickering and flirting that fills the scenes, as they make their way from Florida to New York.

In 1934, the conventions of the screwball comedy were far from cemented in the sensibilities of audiences. When the couple find themselves having to share a motel room early on in their travels, the film dances around the stiff lip of the Hays Code with a washing line and a sheet that Peter biblically nicknames “the Walls of Jericho" to protect their dignities. For Capra, it’s the art of implication that seduced his audience 90 years ago and continues to entice them 90 years later.

When Ellie’s father asks Peter at the end of the film if he loves his daughter, he replies, “Yes, but don’t hold it against me. I’m a little screwy myself!”. From screwballs to rom coms, the sweet simplicities of It Happened One Night still echo through depictions of on-screen romance: like dunking donuts in coffee or a bed sheet falling to the ground at the feet of two unlikely lovers.

You can catch Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night as it screens for our Valentine's season from Friday 9th February.


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