“I never did like the idea of sitting on newspapers. I did it once, and all the headlines came off on my white pants. On the level! It actually happened. Nobody bought a paper that day. They just followed me around over town and read the news on the seat of my pants.”
The image of Clark Gable as the dashing Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind is forever etched in the hearts of millions worldwide, but before the legendary actor stepped into the famous role that garnered him an Academy Award nomination, Gable was already ascending to the highest pinnacle in motion picture history.
There is no denying that Clark Gable was one of the finest stars that Hollywood as ever produced. Apart from being ruggedly handsome and for epitomizing male sex appeal, Gable was an extremely versatile actor whose tenacious screen presence was a welcoming addition to any film.
From the moment Clark Gable entered the gates of MGM, his career started to rise. To bolster his popularity he was often cast alongside the most prominent stars of the day, most notably, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy whose prestige status at the box-office helped Gable’s growing reputation.
At this stage, Gable had hit the earliest peak in his career. Shortly after his appearance in the widely successful, Dancing Lady ( 1933 ), he was loaned out to Columbia for $2,500 per week to play the lead role of Peter Warne in the classic Screwball Comedy, It Happened One Night ( 1934 ) starring Claudette Colbert, and directed by the legendary, Frank Capra, and based on Samuel Hopkins Adams short story, Night Bus with a screenplay by, Robert Riskin.
To everyone’s surprise, It Happened One Night was an unexpected success. In the beginning the film was anticipated to be another of those bus movies that dramatically floundered at the box-office. When it came to selecting players no star wanted to lend their efforts to the production. Robert Montgomery was the first choice to play Peter Warne, but when he rejected, Clark Gable attained the role. The female lead of Ellie Andrews proved to be even more impossible to fulfill. Initially, Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan and Constance Bennett were all approached about the role, but neither of them were willing to put their box-office appeal at risk. At one stage both Bette Davis and Carole Lombard were heavily campaigning for the part of Ellie Andrews, though both Lombard and Davis had other work commitments and couldn’t be loaned out.
The search was over when Claudette Colbert entered the picture. The acclaimed actress who made her motion picture debut in Frank Capra’s, The Love Of Mike ( 1927 ) was one of Paramount’s highly revered stars. In 1931, she was lauded for her performance in The Smiling Lieutenant, and the following year her popularity escalated when she was cast in the historical epic, The Sign Of The Cross. By the time It Happened One Night came into production, Colbert already had a resume of twenty-three films to her credit, most of them being commercially successful at the box-office.
With her prolific work schedule came experience. During her time in Hollywood, Claudette Colbert had charted many different territories, and proved that she was more versatile than some of her contemporaries. Colbert could easily adapt to any role, and exuded all the necessary qualities to portray Ellie Andrews, the breezy screwball heiress in It Happened One Night. Colbert however, was not enthused. She had already planned her long awaited vacation, and after her first film, The Love Of Mike resulted in disaster, the last thing she wanted to do was to make another movie with Frank Capra. She reluctantly agreed to star in the picture if her salary was doubled to $50,000, and if the filming of her role be completed in four weeks.
Despite her initial hesitations, It Happened One Night was a turning point in the career of Claudette Colbert, and it opened the door to a world of endless opportunities. Both Gable and Colbert attained Academy Awards for their performances. To this day the film is known as the first production to receive all five Academy Awards for, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing.
If Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert had the slightest inkling that the film was going to be a triumphant success, the shooting process may not have been as turbulent. During production the atmosphere was often tense and laborious. Both stars disliked the script, forcing Frank Capra to assign Robert Riskin to rewrite the screenplay to satisfy Gable and Colbert. However, Colbert continued to appear discontented. She was easily incensed, and even an insignificant problem evoked a catastrophe as far as she was concerned. When it came to filming the hitchhiking scene, Colbert’s anger exacerbated. She refused to pull up her skirt and flash her thigh to entice a passing driver, which meant that Capra had to hire a stand-in to complete the scene, leaving Claudette Colbert enraged with the idea.
On the other hand, Clark Gable enjoyed making his foray into Screwball Comedy. The maniacal life as seen in films from this genre was a lot different than the tough guy roles that Gable usually played, but in It Happened One Night, Gable gives viewers a glimpse into his real genuine self. After working with Gable, Frank Capra later stated, “It Happened One Night is the real Gable. He was never able to play that kind of character except in that one film. They had him playing these big, huff-and-puff he-man lovers, but he was not that kind of guy. He was a down-to-earth guy, he loved everything, he got down with the common people. He didn’t want to play those big lover parts; he just wanted to play Clark Gable, the way he was in It Happened One Night, and it’s too bad they didn’t let him keep up with that.”
The only altercations that Clark Gable encountered on the set was his rocky relationship with Claudette Colbert, and the daunting task of returning to MGM once filming was complete. Like many actors, Gable found Colbert impossible to work with. He resented her capricious attitude and he disliked that she was on a higher salary than he was, but being the amiable down to earth human being that Gable was, he accepted it.
Whilst filming It Happened One Night, Clark Gable displayed a jubilant approach to his work, but when production ended and his return to MGM grew closer, his mood changed. On Christmas Day he received a telegram from Louis B. Mayer who demanded that he shave off his mustache and report to work before the new year commenced. His next assignment was a film called, Men In White, a medical drama also starring Myrna Loy.
Men In White was a simple film that only took fifteen days to make. Upon completion Clark traveled to New York to promote It happened One Night, which was scheduled to be released in February that year. He was astonished to discover that a film that everybody initially had low expectations about had garnered a positive reception at the box-office. Mordaunt Hall from the New York Times stated “It’s 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 then went on to praise Colbert’s performance by saying she was “engaging and lively” and said that Gable was “excellent.”. Variety noted 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.”, while Film Daily described it as being “A lively yarn, fast-moving, plenty humorous, racy enough to be tantalizing, and yet perfectly decorous.”
It Happened One Night is Frank Capra’s rendition of the famous road movies. The film tells the story of Ellie Andrews ( Claudette Colbert ), a spoiled heiress who has eloped with pilot and fortune-hunter, King Westley ( Jameson Thomas ), despite the rejections of her father, Alexander ( Walter Connolly ). While trapped on-board Alexander’s yacht, Ellie is at her lowest ebb when her father announces that he’s going to annul the marriage. Despondent, a ferocious Ellie eludes her solitary life that her father has planned for her by jumping overboard and swimming ashore, where she embarks on a bus trip to New Year to meet King Westley.
Personalities collide and sparks fly when Ellie meets the fiery-headed journalist, Peter Warne ( Clark Gable ) en-route to New York. Having just been fired from his job, Peter views Ellie as the chief protagonist of his latest headline, and hopes to retain his position as newspaper reporter with his scoop on Ellie, but before he can get that far, Peter and Ellie find themselves drawn to each other after getting entangled in a series of intimate situations.
It Happened One Night takes audiences on a turbulent ride to New York, where an unexpected match is formed and an unlikely romance is created. The last person Ellie Andrews wanted to meet on her bus journey to New York was a rebellious hack like Peter Warne whose wisecracking personality she found irritating. Her opinion changes however, after an adventurous cross-country trip that results in Ellie not being able to envisage life without Peter.
The film itself is brimming with hilarity, sharp crackling dialogue and an abundant of iconic scenes. The stellar performances by both Gable and Colbert are a testament to their talents. In his foray into Screwball Comedy, Clark Gable is an absolute delight to watch. As Peter Warne, Gable is gruff, dubious and quick-witted with an acidic disposition. At first he finds Ellie and her lavish upper-class way of life uninspiring, but he still embodies enough compassion to rescue Ellie from the hardships and struggles of the real world.
“You know, I had you pegged right from the jump. Just a spoiled brat of a rich father. The only way you get anything is to buy it, isn’t it? You’re in a jam and all you can think of is your money. It never fails, does it? Ever hear of the word humility? No, you wouldn’t. I guess it would never occur to you to just say, ‘Please mister, I’m in trouble, will you help me?’ No, that would bring you down off your high horse for a minute. Well, let me tell you something, maybe it will take a load off your mind. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m not interested in your money or your problem. You, King Westley, your father. You’re all a lot of hooey to me!”
Despite her initial trepidation to take on the role, Claudette Colbert was enchanting. Her Ellie Andrews is lively and spirited with a spicy aura. Ellie is not accustomed to reality, and finds the rough and tumble ways of Peter a cause of irritation. Sadly, Colbert displayed no enthusiasm during production and predicted that her career would be on the downward spiral. Confident that she would not win the Academy Award, Colbert decided not to be present at the ceremony, and embarked on her long awaited cross-country railroad trip instead.
After It Happened One Night had triumphed, Clark Gable was walking on air. He continued to achieve greatness as the years progressed, and in 1939 he was cast in the role of Rhett Butler in the Hollywood classic, Gone With The Wind. That same year he married the love of his life, Carole Lombard, and planned to live happily ever after. Sadly that was not to be. Lombard was tragically killed in 1942 while traveling home from a successful War Bond Rally in Indiana. Ever since that fateful night that Lombard’s plane crashed into Potosi Mountain, Clark Gable was left distraught and tormented. He spent the rest of his life searching for another Carole Lombard, but nobody could ever take her place.
This post was written for the Clark Gable Blogathon, which was hosted by Love Letters To Old Hollywood. To read the other entries being exhibited during the event, please click here.