The Best Picture Project – It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934)

Directed by Frank Capra

Screenplay by Robert Riskin

Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

In the history of the Oscars, three movies have won the big five awards of Picture, Director, Actress, Actor and a Screenplay Award: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs. It’s the rarest of the rare achievement, occurring only 3 times in 82 years – so rare that there’s only been four other times when a films leads won in both Best Actor and Actress category. Because it doesn’t occur every year, or even every decade, you’d be tempted to think that surely the sweep each film put on was the result of some sort of dominance on it’s part, that these three films were the only time that Hollywood got it absolutely right and marched home with the trophy. At tempting as that is to think, it’s not the case, as all three were really the product of circumstances, benefitting in some way or another from just dumb luck to do what it did. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest benefitted from a weak Best Actress race in 1975, allowing Louise Fletcher’s supporting role to be promoted to the lead category where she managed to ride the Cuckoo’s Nest wave to victory over the true Best Actress, Isabelle Adjani for The Story of Adele H. Anthony Hopkins similarly benefited, transforming his otherwise-iconic role from a 16-minute supporting turn in The Silence of the Lambs into an outright lead. It’s fair to say that Hopkins would have won no matter the category he found himself in, after all, I don’t really see Jack Palance’s turn in City Slickers taking down Hannibal Lecter, but the role lacks the depth and nuance of a lead turn and one can’t help but think that a stronger challenge might have upended him.


While it’s clear that without a little luck these films wouldn’t have achieved such a rarefied distinction, the Gable/Colbert starrer, It Happened One Night needed more than a little luck – it needed weak categories all around. For most awards its most significant challenger clearly was The Thin Man, the lovable Powell-Loy comic-mystery, which was went head to head with It Happened One Night in four races. The only one it wasn’t in was Best Actress. In that race Claudette Colbert actually needed to overcome Bette Davis for Of Human Bondage, even though Davis wasn’t actually nominated at all. Because of Hollywood politics she was left off the final ballot but managed to snag enough write-in votes to finish third – this was in the days when the finishing order of the nominees was announced. The following year Price Waterhouse came on board to count the votes and results were thereafter kept secret. Still, while Davis went home empty-handed here, she did win the next year for Dangerous. It’s a booby prize, of sorts – which she acknowledged – but kind of a nice booby-prize, when you think of it.

Despite the fact that it needed a weak year to triumph – and to be fair, every year until 1939 was weak at the Oscars – It Happened One Night was clearly the best of a bum lot. Telling the tale of an heiress on the run after marrying a man her father doesn’t care for who hooks up along the way with a reporter to aid her in her flight, it has Gable and Colbert at just about their very best – Gable would only be better in Gone With the Wind. Both leads are charming and have a good rapport and are very witty together and there’s real fireworks between them. Just watch the ‘Walls of Jericho’ sequence on Youtube for proof (I’d’ve put it on here but it was too huge). Other great scenes include the scene in which Gable and Colbert conspire to put some detectives off the trail and he winds up screaming at her over and over “Quit Bawling!”:

My favorite, though, and everybody’s favorite, is the scene where Gable tries to teach Colbert how to hitchhike, only to be learned a thing or two himself. Pay special attention to Gable’s failed attempts at flagging down a car for a good look at true comic acting:


There’s much to enjoy in It Happened One Night and in the grand scheme of things can you really fault a film for beating out a bunch of dogs – The Thin Man notwithstanding. But while it has much to enjoy and some iconic moments, it’s just not what you’d think of when you hear the words Best Picture.


This was Capra’s first Oscar, after his loss the previous year for Lady For a Day. He would go on to win two more Oscar’s for Best Director. Only one other director has won as many – William Wyler – and only one won more – John Ford. In all, between producing, directing and documentary work, Capra would haul in six Oscars.

As well as being the first film to win the big five, It Happened One Night also has the distinction of being the first comedy to win Best Picture. Since then only five out-and-out comedies have won – the last being Annie Hall

While only three films have won the big five Oscars, there have been 19 other instances of films winning four of the big five. Those 19, and the reason they couldn’t make the big five, are listed below:

Gone With The Wind (lost best actor)

Mrs. Miniver (lost best actor)

Going My Way (no best actress nomination)

The Lost Weekend (no best actress nomination)

The Best Years of Our Lives (no best actress nomination)

On The Waterfront (no best actress nomination)

Marty (no best actress nomination)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (no best actress nomination)

A Man For All Seasons (no best actress nomination)

Patton (no best actress nomination)

The French Connection (no best actress nomination)

Annie Hall (lost best actor)

Kramer vs. Kramer (no best actress nomination)

Gandhi (no best actress nomination)

Terms of Endearment (no best actor nomination)

Amadeus (no best actress nomination)

Rain Man (no best actress nomination)

Forrest Gump (no best actress nomination)

American Beauty (lost best actress)


It is interesting to note that of these 19 only four of these films had a legitimate shot at the big five, as they had nominations in all five categories. What’s more interesting is just how many of them- fourteen – had no shot at the big five because there was no actress nomination. I guess it’s true that in Hollywood, it’s a man’s world, the women are just living in it.

If you want to think liberally, On The Waterfront, Kramer vs. Kramer and Terms of Endearment were all winners of a little-Big Five, with each film winning Picture, Director, Screenplay and a lead acting category, followed by a win in the supporting acting category of the opposite sex. For instance, Brando was Best Actor for On The Waterfront, Eva Marie Saint was Best Supporting Actress. Hoffman and Streep were victors for Kramer v. Kramer and MacLaine and Nicholson for Terms of Endearment.

I believe there is only one film that holds the distinction of winning the other kind the little-Big Five, of Picture, Director, Screenplay Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress: From Here To Eternity.

For the list of other winners and those seen click here.

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