Friday, September 9, 2011

Style Essentials--Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in 1934's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

Frank Capra's It Happened One Night is an important film in Hollywood history as it was the first movie to sweep all five of the major awards at the Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. That feat would not be accomplished again until 1975, showing just how incredible a film it is. Even more incredible is the challenge that each of these areas presented to producers when the movie was being made. At the time, it was considered "just another bus picture" with a lackluster original screenplay and combative conflict among all the key players. As a result, no one expected very much from the project.  When Claudette Colbert completed the film, she was known to complain to a friend, "I've just finished the worst picture in the world."

Claudette was far from being the first choice to play the lead and many actresses were considered before her, including Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett, Carole Lombard, and Bette Davis before casting ended with Claudette. And even then, she was extremely reluctant to take the part, having been directed by Capra once before in a project she despised. She fought and fought, finally agreeing to do It Happened One Night for double her usual salary and only if filming could be finished in a ridiculously tight timeframe so she could go work on a project she actually wanted to do.

There's a lot of talk in this tale about lead Clark Gable as well, some true and some possibly not true.  Columbia was considered the worst of the studios at the time, one of the studios considered part of "Poverty Row" and even nicknamed "Siberia" by people like MGM boss Louis B. Mayer. MGM regularly exiled contract players there who were behaving badly and Clark was one such actor, someone who was on the rise in popularity and whose ego studio executives believed was in need of a spanking. He came to this project with an attitude, both belligerent and allegedly drunk at the first production meeting, yet he learned to love both Capra and the part of reporter Peter Warne that seemed custom made for him.

In fact, Clark was a sensation in the role, both because of his talent and his costumes. His traveling ensemble in the movie was a trench coat, Norfolk jacket, and v-neck sweater over a button-down shirt, and this set off a trend in men's fashion. From that point on, Clark considered the trench lucky and frequently wore one in his subsequent pictures. He also appears in a black wool gabardine suit in the last part of the film and looks as close to perfection as any man can get. Designers still try to emulate his classic style in their collections today and stylists frequently use Clark as a role model in men's magazines like GQ. But the biggest impact of the film was when Clark appears bare-chested at the motel and shows Claudette how different men undress. When audiences saw that he chose not to wear an undershirt, which was considered a staple of the time, sales of the foundation garment in stores stalled. There are many reports that those sales dropped as much as 30%.

Designer Robert Kalloch does a spectacular job with the costumes in It Happened One Night. This is not a surprise as he was a designer with incredible talent, skill, and experience. Columbia head Harry Cohn recruited him from the international Lucile couturier, where his clients ranged from royalty to socialites. They also included Cohn's wife Joan. In addition to Clark's outstanding fashion in the film, Claudette is outfitted beautifully. As socialite Ellie Andrews, she is dressed in the finest silk at the beginning and end of the film. And her traveling ensemble with its Peter Pan collar, striped sweater, and below-the-knee bias cut skirt is still highly influential in fashion today. Kalloch also does an incredible job of creating subtle variations in the actors' outfits during their travels through the designer's astute use of layers. As a result, there are many different looks in the film and the audience always feels like they're seeing something new.

It Happened One Night deserves all the accolades it has received. This is a movie that was created in 1934 and yet it seems fresh and fun every time I see it. And because of the great story and direction, strong chemistry among all of the actors, and style for the ages, I have seen it many many a time including on the big screen. The success of the film came not from critics but from the audience's word-of-mouth, so I continue that tradition now in encouraging you to see and enjoy it, too.

Claudette playing socialite Ellie Andrews, who runs away until her father agrees to let her marry

Boats, buses, and automobiles -
Ellie travels in them all throughout the film

Clark making his entrance as Peter Warne, a reporter who stumbles upon the socialite's story

The Norfolk jacket, v-neck sweater, button-down and striped tie that became instant classics for men

Peter and Ellie coming to an understanding -
he helps her reunite with her fiancé in New York, and he gets her sensational story

Due to budget, the two share a motel room in their stop for the night -
separating their beds with the "walls of Jericho," an iconic and oft duplicated moment in film

The moment in film that stalled sales of men's undershirts for some time to come

Both Peter and Ellie wear his men's pajamas to bed -
this, too, launched a trend in women's fashion that continues to this day

After breakfast, they realize Ellie's father is tracking them so they opt to hitchhike the highway

Another iconic moment in film - 
Ellie showing Peter how hitchhiking is really done

Safely back home and resting before the wedding -
her gown a gorgeous bias cut silk charmeuse with flutter sleeves, flowers along the neckline, and train

Peter, now hopelessly in love with Ellie, arrives angry finding her ready to wed another man

Another moment proving why Clark Gable is a model for men's style -
you simply can't look any better than he does in this black gabardine suit

Though walking down the aisle, Ellie's father is encouraging her to Peter

And run she does while the press chase her...right into a waiting car

Back to that same motel for Peter and Ellie's honeymoon
where the "walls of Jericho" come tumbling down at last


Rosemarie Keenan said...

Thanks so much for these great posts and beautiful screen shots of classic films! I loved this post and the one on GILDA. Both films are among my favorites but I'd never thought of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT in fashion terms - fascinating stuff.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Oh thank YOU so much, Rosemarie, for your comments. There's something about each of the movies--IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and GILDA--that makes them so much fun every time you watch them. The movies of the 30s and 40s film noir just feel a certain way. And the fashion is such a huge part...I love taking a longer look at the costumes in these films and constantly amazed what impact they still have us today. Like you said, fascinating!


Marline said...

Oh, Kimberly! You've done a terrific job of sharing the marvelous behind-the-screen story of of my all-time favorite films! I did a lanky post on Claudette in my blog...sharing a few more Colbert tantrum moments...that I think you (and your readers) might love. I also love the clear distinction of fashion between the day tripper look Ellie sports and the languid garden wedding numbers the guests are wearing when the runaway bride elopes with Mr. Marvelous, Clark Gable. Here's the link to the "rest of the story" about the marvelous Claudette Colbert...I think you'll get a kick out of it!
Love, Kay

Kimberly Truhler said...

Just read your post on Claudette, Kay, and it's great additional information on troublesome Claudette on this particular picture. As is the case with other films such as CASABLANCA, it's always amazing how much the quality final product differs from the actual experience of making the movie. Incredible. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

Thanks for all this fascinating info about one of my all-time favourite films. A wonderful rom-com, road movie,buddy movie. First saw it back in the 1970s and loved it ever since.

Unknown said...

If you like 'It Happened One Night', I am sure you also like another Clark Gable film that co-starred Myrna Loy and Walter Pidgeon and reunited him with Walter Connolly: 'Too Hot to Handle'- wonderful film.

Unknown said...

If you like 'It Happened One Night' then I am sure you would also like another Clark Fable film: 'Too Hot to Handle', that co-starred Myrna Loy and Walter Pidgeon and reunited him with Walter Connolly - wonderful film.

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