When wrapping up filming on a small, cozy pre-romcom romantic comedy, Claudette Colbert told a friend of hers that she had just “wrapped up filming the worst picture ever.” That’s part of the reason Colbert originally no-showed the Oscars when she won Best Actress at the seventh annual Academy Awards, as It Happened One Night became the first of three films to ever sweep the Oscars, a feat that stood as a lone accolade until One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest 41 years later.

    In 1982, Colbert was selected by the American Film Institute to host a lifetime achievement ceremony for Frank Capra, the director who shot the picture, despite him being more famous for his later partnership with James Stewart that produced classics Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life. She had previously worked with Capra on an earlier film, For The Love of Mike, which was so poorly received she almost left show business. With an auspicious working relationship storied over 55 years, Colbert told the AFI audience that he was a ‘rare artist’ and ‘storyteller that made you believe every word.’ It was Colbert’s notion that it wasn’t understandable at the time. It’s my notion while writing this piece that that’s what makes it timeless.

    When It Happened One Night graced the silver screen in February in 1933, Frank Roosevelt’s administration had just taken over amidst the Depression in a tumultuous political climate due to Herbert Hoover’s inactivity in regards to policy. Colbert touched on this in the same speech in 1982. “People needed fantasy, they needed a dream of splendor and glamor…and there we were, looking rather seedy riding on a bus,” Colbert continued. “Capra created this genre, which became known as the romantic comedy. Every studio copied it — and I know what I am talking about because I was in quite a few of them.”

    The crux of It Happened One Night’s timeless feel is within that quote. The script is a bit dated, but that’s to be expected from a film that’s nine decades old. I’ve always wondered what constitutes a classic. Many people base a classic on its age and what was a big deal when their grandparents were flocking to cinemas to see a Clark Gable or Claudette Colbert, whereas some view a classic with such adoration regardless of the time period because of the quality the film possesses. In 2023, for example, one could argue that Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was an instant classic.

    One could argue that Alex Payne’s The Holdovers had the feel of a classic because of its familiarity and the way it manufactured a cozy blanket of comfort as audiences were allured into his love letter to ’70s cinema. One could argue that M. Night’s Knock at the Cabin had the makings of a cult classic with sharp direction, a tremendous performance from Dave Bautista that delivered Shyamalan’s unorthodox style of dialogue to a natural tee, and an original idea. All of those things may be true, but when do those become classics? Is a movie that isn’t considered good, perhaps a Netflix original the caliber of Hidden Strike, going to be a classic in 3013 because it’s 90 years old and stars a legend the level of Jackie Chan? It’s a complex discussion to have, based entirely on nuance and conjecture, with opinions differing from person-to-person. But one thing as a viewer is for certain to me: It Happened One Night feels like a classic.

    The script criticism was always a bit harsh in real-time. It’s less over-the-top than most movies that came out pre-code, allowing for performances that were more subtle than actors usually gave during that time period. If anything, I’d argue the script feels like something out of a ’90s sitcom, closer to a script such as The Nanny than anything that came in 1934. This only makes it age more like a wine and adds to its charm, because the script doesn’t feel bogged down by a bygone era. Capra’s breakaway from early-Hollywood tradition is what transcended Hollywood, however. The script gave audiences something to gravitate toward with its socialites vs everyday man conflict rooted in the romance of the leads in a time where America had been seeing an unprecedented gap in social classes. The commentary on social class remained more of a backdrop though to the story beats that the script hit. The beats now feel a bit too-tropeish, but in 1934, they weren’t tropes as the beats had never been hit before. A new genre of Hollywood blockbuster was born with these beats: the romantic comedy. Of course, the romantic comedy can’t take off without the undeniable chemistry that the two leads shared.

    There’s a sense of realism in a film that helps bring it to ‘classic’ status that’s found in It Happened One Night and it’s because the movie was real in a way. Colbert’s attitude toward the film was felt while on the presence of the set, making its success even unlikelier. With Colbert demanding double her salary and only being available for one month of shooting, the production couldn’t face any delays. Thus, with 15% of the budget taken and a time crunch, the crew couldn’t make a proper movie set. They shot on actual buses, local highways, and coffee shops. The use of a motel, an industry that hadn’t been fully established in the U.S. travel dynamic, was out of necessity. The movie sparked a boom in the lodging industry in the United States.

    Another big boost to the films realism is the use of its characters. In most early screwball comedies, secondary characters would be used more as caricatures in a punchline as opposed to guiding the narrative in the story. They don’t merely exist, they drive the film for the primary characters. That doesn’t sound like a lot in 2024, but in 1934, it was a major deal to put any kind of focus in a comedy on a character deemed unimportant to the billing of the film. As for the main characters, its unapologetic look into the life of social situations deemed taboo in 1934 left audiences stunned. It wasn’t considered becoming in 1934 for a woman to share a hotel room with a man, and while the scene may be a tad awkward, it’s that kind of commentary that made the film stand out months before Hays Code was enacted. The ‘walls of Jericho’ curtain divider adds a sense of charm, as if Gable’s character puts her comfort first until she’s comfortable enough in his presence for the walls of Jericho to tumble. The idea that this kind of thing is okay shifted pop culture massively in its portrayal of couples on-screen.

    However, beyond being the grandfather of every love story cliche, its biggest contribution to the entertainment industry is a small quirk from Clark Gable in the hitchhiking scene. With the weird chewing Gable does with a carrot while peeling it, it became something parodied in Looney Tunes by Bugs Bunny. With that, Warner Bros icon had his signature. To this day, Bugs Bunny is known for the carrot, while Gable’s contribution to vegetable chewing goes largely forgotten about.

    The movie laid the groundwork for the RomCom. The movie gave Bugs Bunny his signature. The movie caused a giant uptick in bus travel and hotel lodging. The movie, thanks to a scene where Gable isn’t wearing an undershirt, is said to have caused a sharp decline in undershirt sales in the U.S. The film alongside Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs is one of only three films to sweep the Academy Awards. It’s easy to decide that It Happened One Night is a classic, but It Happened One Night is a classic because in a time where movie studios were contracted to make so many throwaway films per year, one of the throwaway films changed culture forever when people least expected it and America needed it.

    It Happened One Night is currently not streaming anywhere, but is available to rent digitally through Apple TV, Prime Video, YouTube and the Google Play store. The film underwent 4K restoration in 2023.

    Follow me on Twitter: @TheJameus.
    Follow me on Letterboxd: Jameusmooney.