It Happened One Night

The poster and the movie handled romance differently

The fantasy scene in the movie poster never quite matched the newsman-meets-runaway-heiress bus-ride-and-hitchhiking tale that was “It Happened One Night,” but audiences loved the movie anyway.

“It Happened One Night” happened on the silver screen in 1934, then happened on radio more than once, with available recordings of productions by Lux Radio Theatre and by Orson Welles’ Campbells Playhouse. The Internet Archive has two copies of the Lux broadcast, one identified as a rehearsal.

On that March 20, 1939, Clark Gable took a night off from making “Gone With the Wind” to be a newspaper reporter — doing a live on-stage Lux Radio re-creation of Frank Capra’s hit “It Happened One Night,” featuring several members of the original cast, with producer Cecil B. DeMille as host. The live audience must have had a great time watching Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns.

“Told to the tune of a roaring bus motor, it’s the fast moving story of a runaway society girl and the reporter who helped her run,” the announcer explains.

The “fast moving” was true. The Lux crew and script-writer George Wells fitted introductions, some soap-selling, a brief interview with an actual long-distance bus driver, and brief bios of the two main stars into a 55-minute broadcast adaptation of the already fast-paced 105-minute Hollywood film. (Radio archivist J. David Goldin provides cast and crew information at his

It’s one of more than 50 “newspaper movies” that were adapted for radio broadcast during the golden years of both Hollywood and radio drama. Continuing with my theory that radio portrayals presented newspaper reporters as more positive characters than they sometimes appeared in the movies, Gable’s reporter Peter Warne isn’t the stereotypical boasting drunk you may remember from the film version. When we first see him in the movie he’s in a phone booth surrounded by other inebriated gentlemen of the press, trading insults with his managing editor by long distance (collect). Long after the editor has fired him and hung up, he continues a monologue pretending to quit his job.

At Lux, the reporter’s story is somewhat cleaned up — he’s not fired for being a drunk, but simply for missing the story of the runaway heiress. His boasting about being the paper’s best reporter doesn’t sound as much like false bravado without the slurred speech and gaggle of drunken reporters. We go straight into the scenes of the road-wise reporter taking charge of bratty runaway Ellie Andrews, then negotiating the right to tell her story in exchange for his assistance getting from Florida to New York.

One for the road with newsroom pals...

Radio’s reporter Peter Warne (still played by Clark Gable) appeared a bit more sober; on screen, he had ‘one for the road’ with boozy newsroom cronies…

Another hero of the newspaper industry is added to the plot as — appropriately — a storytelling device: a newsboy, whom Warne interrogates to get a summary of the runaway-heiress story. The boy clearly has read enough headlines and leads to fill the role of 1930s equivalent of a blogger:

Some other visual gags in the movie get converted to dialogue, including the “Walls of Jericho” hanging of a blanket to add some propriety to the couple’s shared tourist cabin, Gable’s lesson in donut dunking, and the couple’s shared attempt to hitchhike — without the visual of Miss Colbert’s ankle as an improvement over Mr. Gable’s thumb.

Gable/Warne even sounds a bit like a newspaperman waxing poetic when he’s composing descriptions of himself as a whippoorwill singing in the night, or verbally diagramming the blanket-hanging process with clothesline from nail A to B and it’s woolen barrier between her “bed x” and his “bed y.” He also makes two references to things he should “write a book” about. (The donut-dunking and hitch-hiking.)

As a journalist, Warne has some of Hollywood’s ethical failings. He’s a master of deception, convincing detectives that he and Ellie are a squabbling married couple, and convincing the fast-talking Karnes that he’s a kidnapper with a couple of machine guns in his bag.

The hitching scene must have been fun for the radio audience, judging by the audible chuckles.

“I’m going to write a book about it, call it ‘The Hitchhiker’s Hail.'”
When her come-hither look stops a car, she convinces the driver to take Gable along, even though the driver says he doesn’t like his looks.
“He’s my uncle, he can’t help looking like that,” says Colbert. “He used to be a newspaperman.”

On the radio or on screen, Lux’s 1939 production of “It Happened One Night” is still a fun ride. As a bonus, the Internet Archive also has a live rehearsal recording, minus the audience reactions, but enhanced with an all-male gender-bending reading of a “Lux your undies after every wearing” commercial.

Here’s the “rehearsal” recording:

It Happened Again:
William Powell, Miriam Hopkins and Orson Welles

If you haven’t had enough, and don’t mind a possibly less likable newspaper hero, try a somewhat different production of “It Happened One Night,” from Orson Welles’ Campbell’s Playhouse, the successor to his Mercury Theatre of the Air of “War of the Worlds” fame. The program was originally broadcast January 28, 1940. The Lux and Campbell’s radio scriptwriters made different choices of what to include and how to compensate for the lack of sight-gags.

Welles, on the eve of his movie role as millionaire newspaperman Charlie Kane, cast himself in Walter Connolly’s role as the millionaire father of the runaway bride. The reporter, his name changed from Peter Warne to Peter Grant, was played by guest star William Powell. The heiress is Miriam Hopkins, who also gets to play the escape-from-father’s-yacht scene that was edited out of the Lux version. The return of the yacht also gives Welles another exuberant scene as her father, although I wonder whether the Campbell’s sponsor appreciated the reference to her throwing a bowl of soup at a steward.

“The Thin Man” star Powell had plenty of experience playing gentlemen under the influence, and the drunks-in-phone-booth alcoholic reporters scene from the movie is back in this version, along with a stereotypical Southern black accented bus depot porter that may sound offensive today.

In resigning — after being fired — Peter calls his editor “molasses brain” and says he’s quitting the newspaper business all together. He reconsiders, only after finding out that Ellie is a story. But his ambivalent attitude toward journalism is hinted at when Ellie asks what he does for a living. His response is, “Nothing, if I can help it…. Whatever is the least work.” Later, he adds to his independent man of the road philosophy, “Life’s all right if you don’t try too hard.” He doesn’t mention writing books, even about hitch hiking technique.

In the end, producer Welles gets a big scene as father of the ambivalent bride, encouraging her switch from the aviator she had eloped with to the sometime-newsman she met on the bus.

In this version, Peter’s editor still thinks he’s a “drunken bum.” And Peter only seems interested in writing “the biggest story of the year” to get enough money to marry Ellie. Until the deal falls through, he tells his editor he just needs to cover the wedding expenses “until I can find something to do.”

It’s too bad Welles didn’t decide to expand the part of Peter’s editor and deliver a “Charlie Kane” soliloquy about the significance of tabloid stories about the idle rich. But comparing the two versions is still fun. I only wish Welles and Powell had included a conversation about their interpretation of Capra’s film and Gable’s role.

For more about “Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film,” see USC professor Joe Saltzman’s 2002 book by that name. The book’s forward, by a former dean of the Medill School of Journalism, is online at Saltzman’s Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project.

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