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It Happened One Night (1934)

Smoke gets in your eyes...

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 10 months ago Updated 7 months ago 5 min read
Top Story - August 2023
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934)

I can hardly call myself a connoisseur of Classic Hollywood and the romantic comedy if I haven’t got an opinion on It Happened One Night (1934). The film is often considered the blue print for the romcom genre with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable setting the tone for the push and pull of the attraction across social divides for filmic eternity.

Romcoms are supposed to have the following ingredients:

• Introductions to the polar opposites of the main characters

• A “meet-cute” where there separate lives collide in humorous circumstances

• A whole barrage of obstacles

• A grand gesture of romance

• And a Happy Ending!

Of course, It Happened One Night does all this.

The "meet-cute"

Ellen (Claudette Colbert) is a wealthy heiress, whose father has swept her onto his yacht and away from her newly acquired husband, because he believes the groom is a gold-digger. She jumps into the sea to reunite with her love.

Peter (Clark Gable) is a journalist, fly-by the seats of his pants drunk, recently fired.

They meet on a night bus to New York and much hilarity ensues.

Hitch-hiking

It Happened One Night is a great romcom, and there is much already written about the legend.

It was the first of only three films to win the big five Oscars (best actor, best actress, best director, best (adapated) screen play, best film). The other two are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.

It was shot in just four weeks, with both stars reluctant to appear in it. There was a particularly strained relationship between Colbert and Capra (director).

One of the most famous scenes is the hitch-hiking scene, in which Colbert stops a car by flashing her legs. Apparently she didn’t want to do the scene, but when she saw the body double, she shouted, “That’s not my leg.” And her calf is now in the movie.

When it finished shooting, Colbert reputedly told friends that she had just finished the worst film ever. She was so sure it wouldn’t win the Oscar that she planned her vacation on the day of the ceremony. She accepted the award in a travelling two-piece suit.

The other legend is that when Clark Gable unrobed in front of his leading lady, appearing without a vest, the sale of undershirts plummeted. (There is no data to support this, but what a story!)

But all of this has been said before.

A shirtless Clark Gable

In fact writing about the romcom pretty much everything has already been said.

Whilst often belittled by critics, they are some of the most profitable and popular films. Their success is often related to the socio and economic circumstances of their production. The 1930s and 1970s are often quoted as being the golden ages of the romcom, when the economy was in down-turn and inequality was rife, meaning audiences wanted escape and romance across the social divides.

It Happened One Night is a perfect example of trying to find love that isn’t bound up with the heroine’s financial worth, but her character. When Peter only wants $39.60 expenses, and doesn’t claim the substantial reward for finding the heiress, that is the true indication of love.

But there is also a particularly moving scene where a woman on the night bus faints from hunger, the reality of Depression era poverty on full display.

Clark Gable comforting the boy whose mother has fainted

And then there are the feminist critiques of romcoms. I have written many myself. Romcoms can perpetuate gendered stereotypes and romanticise male predatory behaviour. It Happened One Night has its problems in this regard. There is a “playful” slap on the bottom, to stop her talking. The machismo threats from Peter, “you do and I’ll break your neck” or about marrying her, she needs “a guy who’ll take a sock to her every day.”

This is not o.k.

There is a sense that she is haughty and needs to be taken down a peg to be properly “rescued.” It is not at The Taming of the Shrew break the spirit levels, but it is there.

But all of this has been said before.

So, what can I add?

Clark and Colbert piggy backing...

Well, would you believe I am going to write about smoking? Because Clark Gable is rarely seen without a cigarette – and all the characters smoke. Smoke constantly snaking out of Gable’s lips, even as he lies in bed with the lights out. (“Don’t set the blanket on fire” was my first thought for a shirtless Gable in a motel room.)

Smoking in It Happened One Night was a reflection of the habits of the cast and crew. Not smoking would have been unnatural. But it looks out of place to a 21st century viewer. (My daughter once pointed out to me someone smoking in the street – “Look, Mummy, a real cigarette.”)

There is no suggestion that Gable’s smoking would cause coughing, stained fingers, yellow teeth and bad breath. No idea that it might contribute to the actor's early death. It just was. It had no plot point. It was as common as eating or sleeping.

As a modern viewer I’m used to smoking saying something.

Ella Raines in Phantom Lady (1944)

A cornered woman lights a nervous cigarette, seductively.

Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street

The cigarette in hand, a lazy way to denote working class.

Bogart

The noir detective smokes to slow down the rapid fire of dialogue, a punctuation point.

John Hamm in Mad Men

Cigarette in the hand of an ad-man – so you know he is hard-boiled, and of his time.

While watching It Happened One Night, I found myself drawn to the unspoken habit of lighting up – expecting meaning. But all it says is that this film was made in the 1930s and this is what grown-ups did. Ellen is more disgusted by Peter eating raw carrots peeled with a pen-knife than his constant cigarettes.

Gable and Colbert - What's Up Doc

There was a popularly held opinion that cigarettes reduced stress, especially stress induced by talking to the opposite sex. Cigarettes were also a cheap appetite suppressant. Peter and Ellen were stuck with each other, on the road, with little money. Cigarettes could blow the stress and hunger away.

So the cigarettes in It Happened One Night reminds us that despite some modern ideas and a plot we all recognise, this was a film of the 1930s.

But I can’t help thinking that a healthier way to deal with the stress of economic downturn and dating, would be just to sit back, relax and watch a good rom com. Can I recommend It Happened One Night?

That is her leg...

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Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

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Comments (15)

  • Matthias Evans 9 months ago

    I love old movies

  • Todd Roybal9 months ago

    This article celebrates the classic romantic comedy It Happened One Night and its lasting impact on film culture. The film's humor, romance, and themes are timeless and universal, and the chemistry between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert is undeniable. I can see some parallels between the film and the relationship of Keanu Reeves and Alexandra Grant(https://vocal.media/geeks/keanu-reeves-and-alexandra-grant), who are both artists and collaborators who defy Hollywood norms. I love this film and I hope more people will watch it and enjoy its brilliance and legacy.

  • Kenneth Lawson10 months ago

    What !!! ? You actually watched the movie? I've seen a number of "Reviews" of movies that it's obvious they never watched it and barely know what the story is about. So congratulations on actually watching it and then commenting on it. I haven't seen it in a few years, so my memory of it is a little smoke-filled. You are right about the smoking. It's a sign of the times. It's what people did. Cigarettes were dirt cheap and easy to get, so everyone had them. No one understood the health risks and problems it caused later in life. Cigarette companies would sponsor a whole television show, and the stars would talk about they're "preferred brand" of "cancer stick." Thats the way business ran back then. My dad smoked, my one granddad smoked so it was a thing. Bogart smoked, and it was what killed him early, A lot of the greats smoked, and no one questioned it. If you look on YouTube, you can find a video of Miles Davis performing life in the late 1950s, He's smoking, and almost every one of his band is. In the video, you can see him off-stage while the others do their solos, smoking. He subs the stick steps back up to the mike and starts blowing trumpet like he never touched a cigarette. To have such lungs and talent and then to ruin them with cigarettes is a shame.

  • L.C. Schäfer10 months ago

    Seems like it was of its time and no mistake! Well done on your Top Story 😁

  • slimizzy10 months ago

    Congratulations on your Top Story!

  • Tiffany Gordon 10 months ago

    Excellent job!

  • I've not watched this before but it seems very interesting! Congratulations on your Top Story!

  • Laura Lann10 months ago

    Love that you talked about this film, it's a personal favorite of mine! I don't usually encounter others who have seen it, given the year it was released.

  • Rebecca Morton10 months ago

    It's such an entertaining film, though you are correct about what's problematic about it in these times. I've heard the carrot-munching Clark Gable character inspired the carrot-munching Bugs Bunny!

  • sakin wuda mohammed10 months ago

    excellent work

  • JBaz10 months ago

    Fantastic, love the movie, as I am a classic buff. But the bit about the smoking was a touch of genius.

  • Gerald Holmes10 months ago

    Excellent work. I love the old classics. The smoking thing is exactly as you describe, just a thing of that time in history.

  • Babs Iverson10 months ago

    Smoking, cigarettes were ubiquitous in the movies back then!!! Wonderfully written review!!! Loved it!!!❤️❤️💕 Congratulations on Top Story too!!!

  • Jazzy 10 months ago

    I adored this so much! My grandma loved Clark Gable! I must see this now. I love that you included the commentary about smoking, amazing!

Rachel RobbinsWritten by Rachel Robbins

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