THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934)

In 1935, the seventh Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1934 and December 31, 1934 the awards took place on February 27, marking the first ceremony to nominate films released in a full calendar year. The Academy added new categories this year for Film Editing, Original Score and Original Song, as well as a Juvenile Award which went to screen-darling Shirley Temple. At just six-years-old, Temple is technically the youngest ever recipient of an Oscar.

The awards were marred by controversy for the first time, after assumed-nominee Bette Davis was snubbed for her acclaimed performance in Of Human Bondage. The snub created such a negative reaction, the Academy officially broke their rules in allowing voters to place a “write-in vote” for Davis, instead of the three actual nominees, if they so desired. Despite a huge campaign from Davis and her publicity team, she ultimately failed, and the award went to Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night. Academy records would later show Davis did however score plenty of write-in votes, and came third in the final voting.

The 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

The winner:
It Happened One Night

A screwball romantic comedy, It Happened One Night is the tale of spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudete Colbert) who we learn has recently eloped with a much older man, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), mostly to torment her poor father, Alexander (Walter Connolly). Wanting to have the marriage annulled, Alexander attempts to talk sense into his reckless daughter by whisking her away on his boat off the Florida coast. But when his back is turned, Ellie makes a daring escape, leaping overboard and heading for the shore. Disguising her identity, Ellie boards a bus for New York City, where she hopes to reunite with her new husband. This leads to a chance encounter with an unemployed journalist, Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Being the good reporter he is, Peter recognises Ellie, after Alexander splashes her photo on the front of every major newspaper in America. Desperate to outwit her father, Ellie makes a pact with Peter – help me get to New York City and she’ll give him the exclusive scoop on her wedding to King. But as the bus journey continues, their love/hate relationship quickly becomes something neither ever expected.

Why did it win?
Essentially the birth of the romantic comedy (or at least the first celebrated example of the genre), It Happened One Night charmed audiences with its humour, its romance, and its impeccable production. Initially relatively unsuccessful with audiences in major cities, the film became a box-office sensation when it began to play in cinemas in small towns across the US, eventually receiving one of the largest screen runs in early cinema history. It was Colombia’s biggest hit to date, grossing $2.5 million, but despite its success, the studio never held much hope for its chances at the Academy Awards.

Surprising its studio and the industry, the film was ultimately nominated for the “Big Five” major awards – Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Writing. Even more surprising, it ultimately won all five categories – one of only three films in history to win the Big Five, and an Oscar record that would stand for 40 years, until 1975 when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest repeated this feat. The Academy clearly just fell in love with this film, and when watch it, it’s not hard to see why.

While it was hardly applauded by sophisticated critics (The New Yorker called it “pretty much nonsense and quite dreary”), it was genuinely beloved by audiences and Academy voters. It’s the kind of charm that’s hard to resist, and when you give yourself over to this film, you’re taken along for a magnificent ride. Clark Cable is an irresistible leading man, and Claudette Colbert is so damn gorgeous. Pairing the two together is a masterstroke of early cinema. Their chemistry is utterly sublime (which is staggering, given the two apparently despised working together), and the two play off each other so perfectly to craft the true birth of a new genre.

And really, that’s what it comes down to here. It’s another example of a revolutionary type of film the Academy seemingly had to reward. It delivered something previously unseen, and as I keep reinforcing, that’s the easiest way to win Best Picture in the early days of cinema. Craft a film that’s unique and original, and you’re bound to win over the Academy. This film struck a chord so perfectly, it swept every other award it was nominated up with it.

Did it deserve to win?
Good lord, yes. It Happened One Night may be one of the most lovable and adorable films ever made. It’s the kind of picture you can’t help but swoon over. It’s the kind of romantic comedy that still somehow manages to outshine the drivel we’re fed today. Honestly. Watch this and then something that essentially rips it off like Notting Hill and tell me which is the greater example of a mismatched romantic comedy. It launched a new genre of cinema (for better or worse), and set the template for a style of storytelling now synonymous with film.

While its plot is hardly the stuff of masterworks, its dialogue is utter gold. The screenplay could essentially be filmed today and still somehow be insanely smart and witty. Gable and Colbert deliver each line with such sass and attitude, and there are some absolutely brilliant moments of conversation between the two. Their performances were both worthy of their Oscar wins, and are the stuff of cinema legend. Even the most casual of film fans are aware of the moment Ellie hails a passing car with the flash of her leg, which has become one of the most iconic moments in film.

It’s a genuine delight to watch these two strangers fall in love with each other. It still makes for captivating viewing 82 years later, and if that isn’t the mark of a deserving Best Picture winner, I don’t know what is. This is the first true cinema classic to take home the Academy’s top prize. It’s a piece of cinema that has genuinely withstood the test of time. It’s a film any fan of great cinema needs to see. It’s a film anyone needs to see. Its comedic moments still work to this day (yes, I laughed-out-loud several times), and that’s a genuine rarity with works of the early days of the comedy genre.

It’s a rare example of a comedy taking home Best Picture, but one of the finest examples of the genre. It’s impossible not to love this film. Yes, it’s a classic feel-good romance, but it’s crafted in such a masterful way with sublime performances, a terrific script, and wonderful direction. Easily one of the most deserving films to ever lay claim to the title of Best Picture.

  • I remember Nan watching this movie. I should watch it again.