#350) It Happened One Night (1934)


#350) It Happened One Night (1934)

OR “Bus the Two of Us”

Directed by Frank Capra

Written by Robert Riskin (with an assist from Myles Connolly). Based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams.

Class of 1993


The Plot: Heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with social climber King Westley (Jameson Thomas), despite the objections of her father (Walter Connolly). After Dad insists on the marriage being annulled, Ellie jumps ship (literally) and boards a Greyhound bus for New York, where King awaits. Also on the bus is recently unemployed reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who recognizes Ellie when her disappearance makes headlines. After their bus leaves them behind, Peter agrees to help Ellie get to New York if he can have an exclusive interview. The two bus and hitchhike their way across the country, and while there is some initial friction, you won’t believe this, they start to fall for each other.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a classic” and gives a rundown of the film’s rocky production and eventual Oscar sweep. There’s also an essay by Ian Scott, who wrote a biography on screenwriter Robert Riskin, because someone had to.

But Does It Really?: “It Happened One Night” is an undisputed film classic, but some of its luster has worn off over the years. For the seminal romantic comedy, “It Happened One Night” isn’t as romantic or as hilarious as it used to be, but it still made me laugh quite a bit, and it set the template for practically every romantic comedy since then. The film’s simple premise helps it age well, as do committed performances from both Gable and Colbert (Well, seemingly committed. More on that later). It’s not one of the NFR’s untouchables, but “It Happened One Night” is more than deserving of its place among the best films.

Shout Outs: Peter briefly sings “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Wow, That’s Dated: I have been on a charter bus, and there is no singing or selling of candy and cigarettes. Also dated: telegrams, and not being able to instantly access your money.

Take a Shot: Not to split hairs, but “It” actually happens over the course of several nights. This of course all depends on your definition of “It”.

Seriously, Oscars?: At the 7thAnnual Oscars, “It Happened One Night” was nominated in five major categories, and was the first to win all five: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Claudette Colbert was so convinced she would lose Best Actress to write-in candidate Bette Davis she arranged to leave town the night of the ceremony for a long vacation. When Colbert was declared the winner, her train was delayed so she could run to the Biltmore and grab her Oscar.


Other notes

  • “It Happened One Night” is just as famous for who ISN’T in the cast. First choice Robert Montgomery passed on Peter, while Ellie was rejected by no less than Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, and Miriam Hopkins. This led to some retooling of the screenplay by Capra and screenwriter Myles Connolly, making the lead roles more sympathetic.
  • Both Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were on loan to Columbia from their respective studios: MGM and Paramount. Neither particularly wanted to make the film; Colbert often clashed with Capra (they had worked together before) and Gable’s alleged words on the first day of shooting were “Let’s get this over with.”
  • One of the reasons for this film’s longevity: they’re both smart-asses, yet still relatable. It’s a testament to the work of Gable and Colbert; they help make sure these characters maintain their humanity amidst the one-liners.
  • The character of Shapeley is a series of ‘30s jargon disguised as a human.
  • During the scene where Peter demonstrates his undressing technique, Gable had difficulty getting the rhythm down. To help speed up the scene, Capra suggested that Gable not wear an undershirt. Film lore has claimed that this led to a steep decline in undershirt sales, but no one has ever been able to back up this story. No “Legacy” section for you, urban myth!


  • Several scenes in this movie are downright Seinfeldian in their observations of everyday life. Can’t you imagine Jerry and George debating the correct way to dunk a donut? “It’s one move, George! You don’t double dip!”
  • Best scene in the movie is Peter and Ellie pretending to be a squabbling couple to evade the detectives. They are both ridiculously over-the-top. Second favorite is a similar scene where Peter scares away Shapeley by posing as a gangster.


  • Like many of the greats, Capra knew the power of the close-up. Here he only uses them during choice moments of intimacy between Peter and Ellie to highlight their budding romance.
  • This movie is trying to do for carrots what “E.T.” did for Reese’s Pieces.
  • The hitchhiking scene is a classic for a reason. It’s two well-defined characters playing off each other, turning a mundane situation into something special. And check out the gams on Colbert!


  • Why is Ellie’s story front-page news? Was it a slow week? I feel like “America Still in Depression” should be your opener in 1934.
  • I didn’t realize that Peter and Ellie never kiss in this movie. You don’t even see them on screen together after they part ways during the third act. Not a very satisfying payoff if you ask me.


  • “It Happened One Night” opened to mixed reviews and mild box office. Once the film was released in secondary movie houses, positive word-of-mouth spread, and the film became Columbia’s biggest hit, putting the fledgling studio on the map.
  • As previously stated, this film is responsible for every romantic comedy you’ve seen that involves two people from “opposite sides of the tracks” that are forced together and eventually fall in love. It’s a tale as old as at least 1934.
  • In addition to its influence on the romantic comedy genre, “It Happened One Night” is considered among the first “screwball comedies”, even though that phrase wouldn’t be coined until a few years later.
  • There have been two remakes of “It Happened One Night”, and interestingly enough, they’re both musicals. 1945’s “Eve Knew Her Apples” starred Ann Miller, while 1956’s “You Can’t Run Away from It” starred Jack Lemmon and June Allyson. I have tried – and failed – to watch the latter.



  • Perhaps the film’s most substantial legacy is its influence on one of filmdom’s most iconic characters. According to animators Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett, elements from Peter Warne and Shapeley were combined to create Bugs Bunny: from his smart-alecky demeanor to calling everyone “Doc”.


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