It Happened One Night is a pre-Code romantic comedy beloved for its charm, its picaresque style, and the glowing performances of its two stars, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. It is considered to be one of the first "screwball comedies," a genre built around social satire, comedic antics, sight gags, and witty dialogue. Released in the middle of the Great Depression, the film is considered "escapist" in that it depicted an idealized America at a time when the real America was in crisis. Indeed, the film follows a wealthy heiress as she travels north by bus through rural America. Along the way, she and Peter, a cynical newspaperman, encounter American poverty and American beauty in equal measure. Even when things get dark, human ingenuity, kindness, and warmth prosper against the odds.
The script was based on a short story called "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams that appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1933. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were not Frank Capra's initial choices to play the leads, and his initial picks had been Myrna Loy and Robert Montgomery. Indeed, Gable and Colbert were pretty far down Capra's list of actors to ask, but they proved perfect for their characters, each receiving Academy Awards for their performances. Filming was allegedly uncomfortable, as both of the stars had some problems with the script. Capra agreed with his stars' assessment, however, and they all worked together with screenwriter Robert Riskin to improve on the dialogue. Riskin also won an Academy Award for writing.
When it was released, many involved did not have high hopes for the film. Claudette Colbert allegedly told her friend, "I just finished the worst picture in the world." Her predictions proved off the mark, indeed, as the film enjoyed great success and had a lasting impact not only on Hollywood, but on the culture at large. After the release of the film, the sale of undershirts went way down, as men wanted to emulate the (at the time) scandalous scene in which Clark Gable removes his shirt to reveal his bare torso. Bus ticket sales to women were also said to have gone up after the release of the film. Both Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were surprised to receive Academy Awards; indeed, producer Harry Cohn had to send someone to a train station to fetch Colbert when she won, as she was so confident she wouldn't that she had planned a trip on the day of the ceremony. To this day, It Happened One Night remains an iconic and archetypal romantic comedy, a true classic.