It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night: Cinema's First Romantic Comedy & Why It Matters

By: Domonique Salberg

As cinema’s first romantic comedy, It Happened One Night, continues to have a cultural impact and be the benchmark for which all future films are measured. Released in 1934 by Columbia Pictures and directed by Frank Capra, it follows a runaway spoiled heiress and the pessimistic newspaper reporter who agrees to get her back home in exchange for the exclusive story. Led by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as the mismatched pair, much goes wrong.

Still, their unlikely partnership blossoms into romance after going penniless and hungry and many comedic situations and sexual tension, forcing the pair to rely on each other for survival. The cloaked conflict between the sexes seems so formulaic now, but it had yet to be defined at the time of One Night’s release. Before the film’s creators knew it, they formed the building blocks for the romantic comedy we know today. However, unlike most romcom’s the technical craft displayed in It Happened One Night is brilliant.

It became the first film ever to win the “Big Five Academy Awards,” including Best Actress, Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. And today, It Happened One Night” is one of only three films to sweep the “Big 5.” Moreover, critically acclaimed for its time, no one would have thought it to become a culturally significant story. No actors wanted the roles, and the eventual cast were not stars, and it was never destined to be a commercial success, yet it became even more: a landmark film. Partly projected to be nothing special, it ended up being an outrageous success because it was the first of its kind.

But it was not a mystery why it did so well in the end. Its influence is no sham or sheer luck. Because of It happened One Night, moviegoers were introduced to a new dynamic. Standards were set, and trends were created that influenced and molded new perceptions.

For example, the historical scene where Clark Gable’s character is bare chest and shown alone with his female costar was an unthinkable thing to do in 1934. Another element considered taboo for the time is that Claudette Colbert’s character, a single woman, was traveling by bus. These bold creative choices and the brilliant finished product helped solidify the film’s cultural significance and usher in a new era of American cinema.

As a result, romcoms were born. A massive business in today’s market, in just the last 25 years, romantic comedies have grossed close to $10 billion at North American box offices, and more if we consider they typically have lower budget productions. However, since It Happened One Night helped usher in spicier/more adult content (although mild to modern audiences), some could argue it adversely affected the comedy itself.

The dispute is that modern-day films lean too heavily on crudeness and shock value for cheap laughs. While in contrast, the comedies of the golden age were funny because they had to be due to content restrictions via the Motion Picture Production Code. For those unfamiliar, it was a set of industry guidelines for the self-censorship of content applied to most US motion pictures from 1934-1968.

Thus, It Happened One Night is a rare film flawlessly filled with witty humor and idealized romance that audiences then and now appreciate. Irrefutably, a timeless classic and the perfect template for the quintessential romantic comedy—whether a fan or not—it significantly molded the methods and attitudes of cinema to this day.

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