The Year: 1934
What the Nominees Were: TWELVE nominees! The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes the Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, It Happened One Night, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa, The White Parade
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: The pre-code era went out in style with Von Sternberg and Dietrich’s ludicrously lurid The Scarlet Empress.
What Should’ve Won and Did Win: It Happened One Night
How Hard Was the Decision: Not hard. The Thin Man is great fun, but It Happened One Night is generally considered to be the movie that marked the beginning of Hollywood’s golden age.
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Stars: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Alan Hale
The Story: A rebellious heiress flees from her father’s captivity to go be with the cad she loves. A cynical newspaperman spots her on the night bus and escorts her to get the story, but soon they start to fall for each other.
Any Other Nominations or Wins: This was the first of only three movies to sweep the “top five”, picture, director, writer, actor and actress...though it received no other nominations.
How It Won: It was the little movie that could: every actor and actress in town turned it down until they finally got Colbert by offering more than her quote and borrowed Gable from MGM because Louis B. Mayer wanted to punish him by forcing him to make a stinker. And yet nobody could resist the final product. The screwball genre and the golden age were born.
Why It Won:
- Gable’s character is conceived with wonderfully specificity. I love how he’s in love with his own expertise on every topic: how to dunk a donut, how to give a piggyback ride, even how to undress. She finally wins him over when she proves she can do something better than him: flag down a car. (Of course, she’s packing some equipment he doesn’t have.)
- Most of the elements of the screwball are already here: a “will they or won’t they” couple (at least one of whom is wealthy) forced to overcome escalating obstacles that keep them from acknowledging their roiling sexual tensions. The only element still missing was the madcap absurdity that came to define the genre at its height from ’37-’42, but you won’t miss it here: this is a more fully-rounded story that works as drama, as comedy, and as romance all at the same time.
- This was the movie that gave the “Hays Code” a good name: Strict censorship arrived in 1934, which could have ruined Hollywood, but audiences actually preferred the slow boil to the bump and grind, and the restrictions stimulated the filmmakers to achieve a new level of sophistication, albeit at a great cost. (It would be thirty years until Hollywood finally admitted that they had lost as much as they’d gained, and re-embraced a more realistic view of human sexuality.)
- Normally, I hate it when romances have a third act miscommunication that tears the happy couple apart, but it works here because it’s not just the capricious hand of fate (like the annoying delayed messenger that dooms Romeo and Juliet), it’s a misunderstanding that taps into their lingering mistrust of each other.
How Available Is It?: It’s got a beautiful-looking DVD without a lot of features.