Nobody at Columbia wanted It Happened One Night - nobody, that is, except Frank Capra and his scriptwriter Robert Riskin. They had found the idea in a story called Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams, which had appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine. They bought the story for a trifling sum and, engrossed in making Lady for A Day, forgot it. The events that follow are described by Capra in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title: Irving Thalberg wanted to borrow him from Columbia to make a film for MGM, but Thalberg became ill. Louis B Mayer then vetoed the project and the loan of a director was off. Capra, thankfully back at Columbia, insisted that he now be allowed to make Night Bus.
A couple of 'bus' movies had flopped, so the title was changed to It Happened One Night and the script was rewritten to make the chief characters more attractive. Still nobody wanted the story. At last Columbia boss Harry Cohn gave his consent. Then they ran into casting problems. Myrna Loy turned down the female role, as did Margaret Sullavan, Miriam Hopkins and Constance Bennett. MGM, as the result of the Capra deal, still owed Columbia a star. Robert Montgomery said 'No', but Glark Gable was in Louis B Mayer's bad books, and as a punishment was sent, grumbling, over to Columbia. Finally Claudette Colbert was approached. She was unfriendly: another 'bus' film? It took double her usual fee and the promise of only four weeks' shooting to persuade her.
During the making of the film Capra improvised constantly. One of the happiest passages - the singing in the bus of 'That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze' - came out of an impromptu by a couple of bit-players; it was turned to narrative advantage by making the driver join in and neglect to look where he was going. Nobody, though, seems to have expected the film to be a radiant success, and when it appeared in February 1934 the critical reaction was only moderate. It was the public that went wild. In the Academy Awards of the following year It Happened One Night won five Oscars: best picture, best actress, best actor, best screen adaptation and best director.
Capra's film was to be regarded as a pioneer of the 'screwball' comedies of the Thirties; and its success made it influential. Without it we might not have had My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth or, come to that, Capra's own anti-authoritarian Mr Deeds Goes to Town. Possibly the hostilities which attended its inception created the right atmosphere for a comedy which opens in acrimony. At the outset Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable seemed to have an aversion to each other. Their early scenes needed to bristle - and did bristle! The casting could not have been better. Indeed the film develops into a struggle between the two not for domination - this is not the battle of the sexes - but for superiority in the business of the everyday world.
The journalist has the advantage at the start, after all, as the heiress says, when after their first night in the autocamp they have breakfast together, she has never been alone with a man before. He tries in a series of crucial scenes to assert his worldly experience. Taking of his shirt in the bedroom, 'This' he says, 'is how a man undresses'. At breakfast he demonstrates how to dunk a doughnut. However, his defeat comes when he proposes to hitchhike. He boasts to her of the eloquence of his thumb but the cars whizz negligently past. Only when the girl enters into competition, lifting her skirt to show a seductive log, do the pair get a lift.
Shirt, doughnut, thumb versus leg: the stages in the co-education of the confident journalist and the 'spoiled brat', as he calls the heiress, are memorable. This is partly due to the successful combination of a tart social attitude with a sense of growing attection as conveyed by the two central characters; here Capra's gift for portraying warmth in human relations is never allowed to spill over into sentimentality. But there is another element in the pleasure of It Happened One Night. There is no waste in this comedy. Every incident, every phrase and gesture - from Ellie's flight from her father's yacht, to her escape from the wedding ceremony, bridal train flying behind her - is strictly devoted to narrative and the interplay of character and accident. After the passage of so many decades one still surrenders to the wit, the good humour and the charm of what is thought by many to be one of Capra's best films.
Finally, it is interesting to note that at a time when a star could be bundled off unceremoniously to another studio he could also affect the fashion of a nation. Gable, taking off his shirt, reveals no undervest; men all over the United States followed his lead. There is said to have been a disastrous slump in the undervest business.