Clark Gable began the 1930s as a wannabe, but ended the decade as a “King.”
Initially, he played tough guys, generating screen sparks with Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow. By 1939, he ruled Tinseltown in the role that was cast by popular demand: Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.
Much as I love Gable in GWTW, I find him irresistible in It Happened One Night. The film proves Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman’s adage that “Nobody knows anything” about what makes a hit movie. Because how did this sleeper, shot quickly, with reluctant stars, become the runaway smash of 1934 and the first flick to sweep the Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay?
Sometimes, the planets just align. Director Frank Capra was in a barbershop when he read a Cosmopolitan magazine story called “Night Bus” and optioned it for peanuts. Lucky for Capra, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer wanted to punish his rising heartthrob Gable by loaning him – in reality, exiling him – to Columbia, the studio equivalent of Siberia. Gable protested by arriving drunk for his first meeting with Capra.
For Gable’s co-star, Capra and ace scriptwriter Robert Riskin approached Paramount’s leading lady, Claudette Colbert. Due to start a month-long vacation, she offered the men impossible terms she hoped would send them packing: “Double my usual salary and finish the picture in four weeks.” They called her bluff. Shooting started almost immediately.
Hard to believe a movie that’s 86 years old still feels so fresh, with classic scenes like Colbert’s hitchhiking tutorial (spoiler alert: it involves hiking up her skirt), and Gable erecting “The Walls of Jericho” (a room-dividing blanket) when the unmarried pair spends the night in a motel. By the way, that scene also made history: when fans saw Gable strip down to reveal a bare chest, sales of men’s undershirts tanked.
Affirming Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything” theory, reviewers were lukewarm, but once viewers fell in love, tickets sold out for weeks. At the Academy Awards in 1935, this Little Picture That Could came up big. Nobody realized it then, but the film pretty much invented the meet-cute, snappy-banter rom-com formula that’s still in use today.
Gone With the Wind may have sealed Gable’s screen immortality, but I’m with Capra: “It Happened One Night is the real Gable. MGM had him playing he-man lovers, but he wasn’t that kind of guy. He was down to earth. He just wanted to play Clark Gable the way he was in my movie. It’s too bad they didn’t let him do that.”