The film tells the story of two men (Marshall and Gargan) and two women (Colbert and Boland), who leave from a plague-ridden ship and reach the Malayan jungle. The relationships between the four people before they enter the jungle are examined and are transformed as they interact with natural phenomena and the natives who populate the jungle. The film also relates how each of the four people carried on in life after they emerged from the jungle.
Based on the book of the same name by Max Miller, the film is about a reporter who investigates a waterfront smuggling operation, and becomes romantically involved with the daughter of the man he is investigating.
San Diego Standard reporter H. Joseph Miller (Ben Lyon) has been covering the city’s waterfront for the past five years and is fed up with the work. He longs to escape the waterfront life and land a newspaper job back East so he can marry his Vermont sweetheart. Miller is frustrated by the lack of progress of his current assignment investigating the smuggling of Chinese people into the country by a fisherman named Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence). One morning after wasting a night tracking down bad leads, his editor at the Standard orders him to investigate a report of a girl swimming naked at the beach. There he meets Julie Kirk (Claudette Colbert), the daughter of the man he’s been investigating.
Meanwhile, Eli Kirk and his crew are returning to San Diego with a Chinese passenger when the Coast Guard approaches. Not wanting to be caught with evidence of his smuggling operation, Kirk orders his men to weigh down the Chinaman and lower him overboard to his death. The Coast Guard, accompanied by Miller, board the boat but find nothing. The next day, Miller discovers the Chinaman’s body which was carried in with the tide, and takes it as evidence to his editor, who still remains skeptical of Kirk’s guilt. To get conclusive evidence, Miller tells him he plans to romance Kirk’s daughter Julie in order to break the smuggling operation.
When Kirk returns, he informs Julie that they will need to move on soon—maybe to Singapore—as soon as he can put together enough money for the voyage. One night, Julie discovers her father drunk at a boarding house. Miller, who was there investigating Kirk, helps Julie take her father home. Julie does not discourage Miller’s flirtations, and during the next few weeks they fall in love. She is able to help Miller see the beauty of the waterfront, and inspires him to improve the novel he’s been working for the past five years. While visiting an old Spanish galleon on a date, he playfully restrains her in a torture rack and kisses her passionately—and she returns his passion.
Julie and Miller spend a romantic evening together on the beach, where she reveals that she and her father will be sailing away in the next few days. After spending the night in Miller’s apartment, Julie announces the next morning that she’s decided to stay, hoping that he will stay with her. When Miller learns from her that her father is due to dock at the Chinese settlement that night, he notifies the Coast Guard. At the dock, while the Coast Guard searches the vessel, Miller discovers a Chinaman hidden inside a large shark. When the Coast Guard attempt to arrest Kirk, he flees the scene but is wounded during his escape.
The next morning, Miller’s breaking story is published on the Standard’s front page. When a wounded Kirk makes his way back home, Julie learns that it was Miller who helped the Coast Guard uncover her father’s smuggling operation (of which she was unaware), and that she unknowingly revealed to him his landing location. Soon after, Miller, feeling guilty over the story’s impact to Julie’s life, arrives at her home and apologizes for the hurt he’s caused her, and announces that he loves her. Feeling used by his actions, an angry Julie sends him away.
Later that night, Miller locates Kirk, who shoots him in the arm. Julie arrives to help her father escape, and seeing Miller wounded, she tells her father she cannot leave Miller to die. Seeing that she loves him, Kirk helps her take Miller to safety, after which Kirk dies. Later from his hospital bed, Miller acknowledges in his newspaper column that Kirk saved his life before he died. Sometime later, Miller returns to his apartment, where Julie is waiting to greet him. Noticing that she cleaned and transformed his place into a cozy home, he tells her he finally wrote the ending to his novel, “He marries the girl”. Julie acknowledges, “That’s a swell finish”, and the two embrace.
Rights to the novel were bought by Edward Small and his partner Harry Goets in 1932. They made it through the Reliance Picture Corporation as the first of a six-film deal with United Artists. Reliance co-produced the film with Joseph Schenck’s Art Cinema Corporation.
I Cover the Waterfront was filmed from mid-February to early March 1933.
In his review for The New York Times, film critic Mordaunt Hall called the film “a stolid and often grim picture”. While Hall felt the drama was not as good as some of director James Cruze’s previous work, the “clever acting of the principals”—especially that of Ernest Torrence—offset some of the film’s shortcomings.
Hall found some of the scenes “more shocking than suspenseful” and felt a broader adaptation of Max Miller’s book may have been more interesting than the focus on the melodramatic series of incidents related to a sinister fisherman.
While acknowledging that “Colbert does well as Julie”, Hall did not find her convincing as a fisherman’s daughter because she does not look the type. Hall reserved his highest praise for Ernest Torrence in his final screen performance. Torrence died on May 15, 1933, shortly after the film was completed.
John Mosher of The New Yorker described the adaptation as a “commonplace screen romance,” but also praised the performance of the late Torrence, writing that he “was at the height of his power … One can foresee that many pictures will be empty things for lack of him.”Variety called it “a moderately entertaining picture … The late Ernest Torrence has the meat part and his performance is in keeping with the standard he had set for himself. A pretty tough assignment they gave him, one in which it was necessary to capture sympathy in face of the worst sort of opposition from the script. He’ll be sorely missed on the screen.”
The plot is based on the August 1933 short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, which provided the shooting title. One of the last romantic comedies created before the MPAA began enforcing the 1930 production code in 1934, the film was released on February 22, 1934.
Spoiled heiress Ellen “Ellie” Andrews has eloped with pilot and fortune-hunter “King” Westley against the wishes of her extremely wealthy father, Alexander. Alexander wants to have the marriage annulled because he knows that Westley is really only interested in her money. Jumping ship in Florida, she runs away boarding a bus to New York City to reunite with her new spouse. She meets fellow bus passenger Peter Warne, a freshly out-of-work newspaper reporter. Soon Warne recognizes her and gives her a choice: If she will give him an exclusive on her story, he will help her reunite with Westley. If not, he will tell her father where she is. Ellie agrees to the first choice.
As they go through several adventures together, Ellie loses her initial disdain for him and begins to fall in love. When they have to hitchhike, Peter fails to draw attention until Ellie displays a shapely leg to Danker, the next driver. When they stop en route, Danker tries to steal their luggage, but Peter seizes his car. Nearing the end of their journey, Ellie confesses her love to Peter. When the owners of the motel in which they are staying notice that Peter’s car is gone, they expel Ellie. Believing Peter has deserted her, Ellie telephones her father, who agrees to let her marry Westley. Meanwhile, Peter has obtained money from his editor to marry Ellie, but misses her on the road. Although Ellie has no desire to be with Westley, she believes Peter has betrayed her for the reward money, and agrees to have a second, formal wedding to Westley.
On her wedding day, she finally reveals the whole story. When Peter comes to Ellie’s home, Mr. Andrews offers him the reward money, but Peter insists on being paid only his expenses: a paltry $39.60. When Ellie’s father presses him for an explanation of his odd behavior, Peter admits he loves Ellie, and storms out. Westley arrives for his wedding via autogyro but at the wedding ceremony, Mr. Andrews reveals Peter’s refusal of the reward money to Ellie, sends her to Peter, and pays Westley off.
Clark Gable as Peter Warne, a recently fired newspaper reporter
Neither Gable nor Colbert was the first choice to play the lead roles. Miriam Hopkins first rejected the part of Ellie. Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy were then offered the roles, but each turned the script down, though Loy later noted that the final story as filmed bore little resemblance to the script that she and Montgomery had been offered for their perusal.
Harry Cohn suggested Colbert, and she initially turned the role down. Colbert’s first film, For the Love of Mike(1927), had been directed by Capra, and it was such a disaster that she vowed to never make another with him. Later on, she agreed to appear in It Happened One Night only if her salary was doubled to $50,000, and also on the condition that the filming of her role be completed in four weeks so that she could take her well-planned vacation.
According to Hollywood legend, Gable was lent to Columbia Pictures, then considered a minor studio, as some kind of “punishment” for refusing a role at his own studio. This tale has been partially refuted by more recent biographies. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer did not have a project ready for Gable, and the studio was paying him his contracted salary of $2,000 per week whether he worked or not. Louis B. Mayer lent him to Columbia for $2,500 per week, hence netting MGM $500 per week while he was gone. Capra, however, insisted that Gable was a reluctant participant in the film.
Filming began in a tense atmosphere as Gable and Colbert were dissatisfied with the quality of the script. However, Capra understood their dissatisfaction and let screenwriter Robert Riskin rewrite the script. Colbert, however, continued to show her displeasure on the set. She also initially balked at pulling up her skirt to entice a passing driver to provide a ride, complaining that it was unladylike. Upon seeing the chorus girl who was brought in as her body double, an outraged Colbert told the director, “Get her out of here. I’ll do it. That’s not my leg!” Through the filming, Capra claimed, Colbert “had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me”, however, “she was wonderful in the part.”
After filming was completed, Colbert complained to her friend, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.”Columbia appeared to have low expectations for the film and did not mount much of an advertising campaign to promote it.
Initial reviews, however, were generally positive. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times called it “a good piece of fiction, which, with all its feverish stunts, is blessed with bright dialogue and a good quota of relatively restrained scenes.” He also described Colbert’s performance as “engaging and lively” and Gable as “excellent”.
Variety reported that it was “without a particularly strong plot”, but “manages to come through in a big way, due to the acting, dialog, situations and directing.”Film Daily praised it as “a lively yarn, fast-moving, plenty humorous, racy enough to be tantalizing, and yet perfectly decorous.” The New York Herald Tribunecalled it “lively and amusing.”John Mosher of The New Yorker, however, panned it as “pretty much nonsense and quite dreary,” which was probably the review Capra had in mind when he recalled in his autobiography that “sophisticated” critics had dismissed the film.
Despite the positive reviews, the film only did so-so business in its initial run. However, after it was released to the secondary movie houses, word-of-mouth began to spread and ticket sales became brisk, especially in smaller towns where the film’s characters and simple romance struck a chord with moviegoers who were not surrounded by luxury. It turned out to be a major box office smash, easily Columbia’s biggest hit to date.
In 1935, after her Academy Award nomination, Colbert decided not to attend the presentation, feeling confident that she would not win the award, and instead, planned to take a cross-country railroad trip. After she was named the winner, studio chief Harry Cohn sent someone to “drag her off” the train, which had not yet left the station, and take her to the ceremony. Colbert arrived wearing a two-piece traveling suit which she had the Paramount Pictures costume designer, Travis Banton, make for her trip.
On December 15, 1996, Gable’s Oscar was auctioned off to Steven Spielberg for $607,500; Spielberg promptly donated the statuette to the Motion Picture Academy. On June 9 of the following year, Colbert’s Oscar was offered for auction by Christie’s, but no bids were made for it.
It Happened One Night was adapted as a radio play on the March 20, 1939 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater, with Colbert and Gable reprising their roles. The film was also adapted as a radio play for the January 28, 1940 broadcast of The Campbell Playhouse.
In 2013 digital restoration of the film was done by Sony Colorworks, a new master film copy was made from the original negative and scanned at 4K. The digital pictures were digitally restored frame by frame at Prasad Corporation to remove dirt, tears, scratches and other artifacts, thereby returning the film to its original look.
In popular culture
It Happened One Night made an immediate impact on the public. In one scene, Gable undresses for bed, taking off his shirt to reveal that he is bare-chested. An urban legend claims that, as a result, sales of men’s undershirts declined noticeably. The movie also prominently features a Greyhound bus in the story, spurring interest in bus travel nationwide.
The unpublished memoirs of animator Friz Freleng mention that this was one of his favorite films. It Happened One Night has a few interesting parallels with the cartoon character Bugs Bunny, who made his first appearance six years later, and who Freleng helped develop. In the film, a minor character, Oscar Shapely, continually calls the Gable character “Doc”, an imaginary character named “Bugs Dooley” is mentioned once in order to frighten Shapely, and there is also a scene in which Gable eats carrots while talking quickly with his mouth full, as Bugs does.
Parodies of the film abound. The 1937 Laurel and Hardy comedy Way Out West parodied the famous hitchhiking scene, with Stan Laurel managing to stop a stage coach using the same technique.Mel Brooks‘s film Spaceballs (1987) parodies the wedding scene. As she walks down the aisle to wed Prince Valium, Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is told by her father, King Roland, that Lone Starr forsook the reward for the princess’s return and only asked to be reimbursed for the cost of the trip.
Recent films have also used familiar plot points from It Happened One Night. In Bandits, (2001), Joe Blake (Bruce Willis) erects a blanket partition between motel room beds out of respect for Kate Wheeler’s (Cate Blanchett‘s) privacy. He remarks that he saw them do the same thing in an old movie. In Sex and the City 2, Carrie and Mr. Big watch the film (specifically the hitchhiking scene) in a hotel; later in the film Carrie uses the idea which she got from the film to get a taxi in the Middle East. Also in an earlier episode of Sex and the City, Samantha mimics Claudette Colbert by showing some leg to stop a taxi. The wedding scene at the end of Heartbreaker is a reprise of the wedding scene in It Happened One Night.
Beginning in January 2014, the comic 9 Chickweed Lane tied a story arc to It Happened One Night when one of the characters, Lt. William O’Malley, is injured during World War II and believes himself to be Peter Warne. As he sneaks through German-occupied France, several plot points run parallel to that of It Happened One Nightand he believes his French contact to be Ellen Andrews.
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