How It Happened One Night took four weeks to win five Oscars

The 1934 movie It Happened One Night didn’t have the smoothest of starts. Director Frank Capra got rejected by seven leading actresses of the day before Claudette Colbert agreed – on the condition that she get paid double her normal salary and it wrap in four weeks in time for her ski vacation at Sun Valley, Idaho. Her co-star Clark Gable showed up drunk and surly to the first preproduction meeting, calling the second-rate Columbia studio (he had been loaned from MGM as punishment), “Siberia” and yelling at studio workers, “Why ain’t you wearing parkas?”

Four weeks to film! The average time for preproduction for a movie is 146 days. Then the actual shoot takes 106 days. This was a very tight boundary the director had to play in.

Capra had a ball. They started filming the day after Claudette Colbert agreed to do it. Most shots were done on location outside because there wasn’t enough time to build many sets. Watching the movie now we see the outside shots are a big part of the charm. There is an authenticity to those scenes that is missing on set pieces. Everything was kept simple. Colbert had two dresses she wore the whole movie. Motel scenes in different states used the same set. Capra was flying fast and free. And eventually Gable came round to it and thoroughly enjoyed playing against type, reveling in being a carefree, prickly drunk of a newspaperman.

The romantic comedy wrapped in time. It was released in the big theaters…and promptly sank out of sight a week later. But the movie hung around in smaller theaters. It generated word of mouth, and people returned again and again to re-watch it. The groundswell became a flood and carried it right into Oscar nomination-land, something unheard of for bargain basement Columbia pictures. The movie was nominated in all the major categories – best actor, best actress, best picture, best director, best screenplay. That year they won…with a clean sweep of all the five big categories. “The people discovered that movie,” Capra later said.

If there’s no time for perfection, the spirit of play has room. The tighter the boundary (as I’ve learned from playing team building games with kids) the greater the chance for fun. This is the wisdom found in recognizing and smiling at limits. 

And we intuitively recognize when we’re interacting with something and someone that’s alive. Meticulous perfection squashes that quixotic playfulness so essential to real vitality. 

If you do what you do perfectly, people will admire you. If you do it imperfectly, people just might adore you instead.

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