Enemies to Lovers: 90 years of rom-com history-maker It Happened One Night

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934).
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934).

To celebrate 100 years of Columbia Pictures, we’re examining the deep impact of Frank Capra’s 1934 Big Five Academy Award-winner It Happened One Night, from Carrie Bradshaw to Bugs Bunny.

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It’s 1934. It costs $2.60 to send a telegram and $2 for a night in a hotel. Rebellious heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has jumped overboard from her father’s yacht in Miami. Peter Warne (Clark Gable), the cynical newspaper man whom she meets on a bus to New York, has become her only hope of escaping her stifling life of luxury. But Peter can’t flag down a cab. Ellie steps into the road, hitches up her skirt and flashes a tantalizing sliver of leg. Brakes slam. Tires squeal. A ride is immediately secured.

It’s 2010. Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big are curled up in a hotel bed, an old movie flickering on the television screen. It’s the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night. “That’s shocking,” deadpans Carrie, when Ellie shows off her gams. “For the ’30s, it was,” replies Big. Yes, after 76 years, Ellie and Peter live on in Sex and the City 2. Even though this particular entry fails to capture the magic of HBO’s seminal series, the inclusion of this moment is most welcome, as it’s undoubtedly poignant to watch one of our most iconic romantic-comedy leading ladies learn a thing or two from a pioneer of the genre. “It’s really special watching this for the first time,” writes Letterboxd member Sarah, “because, at some point, it dawns on you that you’re watching the very beginning of nearly every romantic comedy film convention ever.”

The impact of It Happened One Night reverberates throughout the entire rom-com canon, a label to be worn with pride and received without derision. Released in the midst of the Great Depression, the movie and its odd eventual-couple’s playful antics helped to uplift and distract a despondent country from the economic woes weighing it down. Although the cast and crew feared it would be a disaster during production, Frank Capra’s pre-Code film ended up being the first in Academy Awards history to win the Big Five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.

A wave of screwball comedies ensued. Characterized by fast-paced dialogue, battle-of-the-sexes plot points and a satirical perspective on the absurdities of romance, the genre provided respite throughout the tumultuous, war-addled ’40s and into the early ’50s. Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve—they all owe it to It Happened One Night. (For more essential recommendations, check out theriverjordan’s list Where to Begin: Screwball Comedies).

“Romantic films [from] 50 years ago are able to capture some form of romance and elegance that’s been long lost in filmmaking,” writes Quintin. “Whether it be Brief Encounter, The Apartment or His Girl Friday, there’s something magical about these romances and It Happened One Night is no exception. A charming and enjoyable time that feels timeless almost 90 years later.”

Ellie and Peter put up a literal wall between them.
Ellie and Peter put up a literal wall between them.

Today, the picture is Frank Capra’s second most popular film on Letterboxd—after Christmas staple It’s a Wonderful Life—and has been preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with funding provided by The Film Foundation. Founded in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, the organization serves to protect cinema history, helping to restore over 1,000 titles since its inception. In a 2012 interview with Fast Company, the legendary filmmaker admitted, “I didn’t think much of this Frank Capra film, until I saw it recently on the big screen. I discovered it was a masterpiece! The body language of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, the way they related—it’s really quite remarkable.”

As demonstrated by both Scorsese and Sex and the City (yes, we’ve finally linked the two!), contemporary love stories are also indebted to Ellie and Peter. More specifically: fan fiction. This thing is filled to the brim with tropes-before-they-were-tropes. Kailey both recognizes and pokes fun at this, parodying the AO3 fanfic format in her review: “[slow burn, enemies to lovers!, dumbasses in love, fake marriage, fake identity, sharing a room but there’s two beds, is it possible they will ever share one bed??? (gasp shock), angst and fluff, happy ending (I promise), rich girl, sassy newspaperman, loving but strict father, guy lands at a wedding in an autogyro]”.

Ah, yes, the classic enemies-to-lovers conceit: the sizzle of sparks that fly in the face of presumed animosity, that thaw the heart’s icy, self-imposed boundaries. In the case of Ellie and Peter, the “walls of Jericho” (represented by a hanging sheet that separates their hotel twin beds) do inevitably topple, but over the course of several rather than just one night. A procession of uniquely intimate moments contributes: “‘They don’t make ’em like this anymore,’ I murmur wistfully as I swoon over Clark Gable picking raw carrots out of Claudette Colbert’s front teeth,” writes Nora, citing the scene that—according to animator Friz Freleng’s unpublished memoirs—actually inspired the carrot-chomping technique of Bugs Bunny.

“What’s up, doc?”
“What’s up, doc?”

Another beloved trope that It Happened One Night propagated? The plucky journalist protagonist. Though this role is occupied by Gable’s roguish Peter, modern romances have generally shifted the woman into this—often inaccurately glamorized—position (hello once more to Carrie Bradshaw). Dana’s list of “rom-coms where the female lead is a journalist or in fashion or a journalist in fashion” provides ample examples such as 13 Going on 30, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, 27 Dresses and more, some even without numbers in their titles (although Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Down with Love are conspicuously missing).

But perhaps Capra’s picture’s greatest accomplishment is being selected as one of Richard Kind’s Four Faves (or, more accurately, Nine Faves. “Why would I stop? It’s Letterboxd!” he enthused). We interviewed the character actor at the LA premiere of Beau Is Afraid, where he called It Happened One Night “fantastic”. 

Finally, we’ll bid you adieu with a more tangible impact in the form of a real-world love story—chronicled in Letterboxd member retrohound’s review—that bloomed from the seeds of Ellie and Peter’s historic misadventure almost a century prior:

“Many years ago (like, 1991), I started dating this hottie, and I told her I was a big fan of old movies, and she told me one of her favorites was It Happened One Night. If she didn’t like old movies, I wasn’t sure we’d keep dating. Now we are closing in on 28 years being happily married. She doesn’t love old movies as much as I do, but she does like many of them. We haven’t watched this in many years however, and I’m happy to report it is still a joy. So is she.” —⁠retrohound

Visit Sony Pictures’ official page for It Happened One Night’ and follow Sony Pictures’ new Letterboxd HQ where they’ll be celebrating a century of cinematic magic throughout 2024.

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