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.
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. Margaret Sullavan also rejected the part. Constance Bennett was willing to play the role if she could produce the film herself; however, Columbia Pictures would not allow this. Then Bette Davis wanted the role, but was under contract with Warner Brothers and Jack L. Warner refused to lend her. Carole Lombard was unable to accept, because the filming schedule conflicted with that of Bolero. Loretta Young also turned it down.
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 Tribune called 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.
The film won all five of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated at the 7th Academy Awards for 1934:
It Happened One Night was the first film to win the "Big Five" Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing). As of 2014, only two more films have achieved this feat: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. It Happened One Night was also the last film to win both lead acting Academy Awards until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975.
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.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:1998: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – #35
2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #8
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – #38
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Ellie Andrews: "Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb." – Nominated
2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #46
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
#3 Romantic Comedy Film
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.
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.
Joseph Stalin was a fan of the film, as was Adolf Hitler.
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.
The film has also inspired a number of remakes, including the musicals Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) starring Ann Miller and You Can't Run Away from It (1956) starring June Allyson and Jack Lemmon, which was directed and produced by Dick Powell. The Sure Thing (1985), starring John Cusack, has some similarities.
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 Night and he believes his French contact to be Ellen Andrews.
It Happened One Night has been adapted into numerous Indian films. These include three Hindi adaptations: Chori Chori (1956), Nau Do Gyarah (1957) and Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1991), one Tamil adaptation Chandhrodhayam (1966), and one Kannada adaptation Hudugaata (2007).