Saturday, February 22, 2014

The First Movie to Sweep the Major Oscars

"I want to see what love looks like when it's triumphant. I haven't had a good laugh in a week."

Peter (Clark Gable)

There may have been movies that premiered before this date in 1934 that could be classified as screwball comedies.

But the genre really began to gain popularity when "It Happened One Night" premiered on this date in 1934. For all intents and purposes, I suppose, the screwball comedy was born 80 years ago today. (As a comedy, the American Film Institute ranks it eighth all time.)

And its influence can be seen in numerous movies in the decades that followed, even though the screwball comedy's heyday was in the 1930s. The blueprint for the genre — a headstrong, runaway heiress gets hooked up with someone, frequently a reporter, who can gain something from the relationship — has shown up in various forms over the years.

"Roman Holiday," for instance, had a runaway princess (Audrey Hepburn) in the company of a reporter (Gregory Peck) who needed a scoop to revive his career.

That, in a nutshell, was the plot of "It Happened One Night." (There were a few differences, but not many.)

But, because it was so different from other movies in the still–emerging motion picture art form, it didn't enjoy the enthusiastic support of some of its principal participants. Claudette Colbert, for example, had worked with director Frank Capra before, and the experience had not been pleasant. She wasn't going to work with him again, but she relented on the conditions that her pay be doubled and that her work on the project be done in time for her to take a planned vacation.

Capra claimed that Clark Gable was hesitant to participate in the project as well.

And Capra himself reportedly said it was "the worst picture in the world."

Ellie (Claudette Colbert): I'll stop a car, and I won't use my thumb!

Peter (Clark Gable): What're you gonna do?

Ellie: It's a system all my own.

Thus, it caught just about everyone by surprise when "It Happened One Night" became the first movie to sweep Best Picture, Best Actor (Gable), Best Actress (Colbert), Best Director (Capra) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin) at the Academy Awards. It was a feat that would not be duplicated for more than 40 years — until 1975, when "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" won all five Oscars.

Modern movie viewers who have watched other movies from the 1930s undoubtedly will notice that "It Happened One Night" was more daring than its contemporaries, and there is a good reason for that. "It Happened One Night" was made just before enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code for Will Hays, Hollywood's censor–in–chief of the day) began.

Consequently, there was more of a sense of freedom in "It Happened One Night" than there was in most of the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Certainly, there was more bare skin than one sees in most movies from that decade. No nudity, but scenes in which skin — like Gable's bare chest and Colbert's bare leg — was shown.

In other movies of the '30s (and for decades after), you rarely, if ever, saw an unmarried couple sleeping in the same room, much less the same bed (even married movie couples didn't do that).

Gable and Colbert didn't sleep in the same bed, but they did sleep in the same room.

And they used a clever strategy for maintaining their individual privacy — they hung a blanket between the beds.

Peter (Clark Gable): Remember me? I'm the fellow you slept on last night.

Ellie (Claudette Colbert): You needn't concern yourself about me. I can take care of myself.

Peter: You'll never get away with it, Miss Andrews.

I never understood the objections that some actors had to the quality of the script. I thought it was smart, clever.

To be fair, some movie stars who turned down the roles that ultimately went to Gable and Colbert claimed that the actual script in the movie was not the same script they had been shown.

Be that as it may, there was an undeniable chemistry between Gable and Colbert in "It Happened One Night," and that more than anything else made it such an appealing movie.

The story transcended global politics — both Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler were said to be fans of "It Happened One Night."

They weren't the only ones. Before "It Happened One Night" swept the Oscars, it swept the country. It was a smash hit for Columbia Pictures. Made for an investment of $325,000, it earned $2.5 million at the box office.

It's hard to imagine a better return on your investment in 1934.