‘It Happened One Night’ (1934) and ‘You Can’t Run Away from It’ (1956)

In this installment of ‘Comparing Cinema Classics,’ we visit two couples, one in a comedy and the other in a musical.
‘It Happened One Night’ (1934) and ‘You Can’t Run Away from It’ (1956)
Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), in "It Happened One Night." (Columbia Pictures)
Tiffany Brannan

Opposites attract is a common expression, and its truth is the basis of traditional romance and marriage. The unlikely bond which forms between two very different people is the starting point for many stories. For instance, the “prince(ss) and the pauper” theme is an interesting take on the idea of sweethearts from opposite sides of the tracks.

Two movies based on this theme are “It Happened One Night” from 1934 and its remake, “You Can’t Run Away from It” from 1956. The earlier movie is an Academy Award-winning screwball comedy, while the second is a playful musical. Both are charming movies that will please people with different tastes. Comparing these two films makes for an interesting study because they were released on either side of the Breen Production Code era.

‘It Happened One Night’ (1934)

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a sheltered heiress, who marries phony aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas) against her father’s wishes. Mr. Andrews (Walter Connolly) kidnaps his daughter right after the wedding ceremony, brings her to his yacht, and tries to force her to have an annulment. Ellie defiantly jumps overboard and swims to shore; she eventually boards a Greyhound bus from Florida to New York.

On the bus, Ellie meets unemployed reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). When he recognizes her from her picture in the newspaper, he realizes he’s found the scoop that could restore his job. He blackmails her into letting him accompany her on the trip so he can get her story, but he ends up helping her manage her meager funds and avoid detection by her father’s spies. Ellie becomes increasingly conflicted as she starts developing feelings for Peter.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and Peter Warne (Clark Gable), in "It Happened One Night." (Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)
Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and Peter Warne (Clark Gable), in "It Happened One Night." (Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)
“It Happened One Night” is one of Frank Capra’s earliest hits. It secured his place as one of Hollywood’s most respected directors, and Clark Gable’s reputation as a popular leading man. The film swept the Academy Awards, winning in the major categories of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Its financial success catapulted Columbia Pictures from poverty row to the ranks of a major Hollywood studio. Some have called it the first screwball comedy.

‘You Can’t Run Away from It’ (1956)

Over 20 years later, Columbia remade “It Happened One Night” as “You Can’t Run Away from It.” In the style of the ‘50s, it was turned from a brooding Depression Era social commentary into a Technicolor musical. Musical star of the 1930s, Dick Powell, produced and directed the project, and his current wife, June Allyson, played the leading lady.

One of Columbia’s most promising young actors, Jack Lemmon, took on the unenviable job of reprising Clark Gable’s Oscar-winning performance. Lemmon was fresh off winning his own Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in “Mister Roberts,” and this film gave him a rare opportunity to show off his musical talents. Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer wrote four original songs for the score, plus an instrumental dance number.

Lobby card for “You Can’t Run Away from It.” (MovieStillsDB)
Lobby card for “You Can’t Run Away from It.” (MovieStillsDB)

A few changes were made to the basic story. Instead of being a millionaire of undisclosed background, Mr. Andrews of the remake (Charles Bickford) is a Texas cattle baron. Thus, the trip is from San Diego, California to Houston, Texas. Instead of a sinister-looking aviator, Ellie marries Jacques Ballarino (Jacques Scott), an international playboy sportsman. Peter is fired as he is in “It happened One Night, and he needs Ellie’s story pretty badly.

Some of the original dialogue was reused verbatim in the 1950s film. Other sections were quite different. Of course, being a musical, “You Can’t Run Away from It” is cheerier in nature, replacing serious scenes with cute numbers. That’s not to say that “It Happened One Night” doesn’t have any singing and dancing in it, though. The passengers on the bus sing a rousing chorus of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” which leads to the bus’s ending up off-road because the driver gets distracted. Clark Gable also sings a mean rendition of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” which debuted just the year before in Disney’s “Three Little Pigs.”

Pre-Code, Breen, and Shurlock

“It Happened One Night” was released in February of 1934, the year the Production Code Administration (PCA) was formed to enforce the Motion Picture Production Code’s guidelines for proper and moral film content; however, the PCA wasn’t formed until June, so the film is actually a Pre-Code production. This was a category of early talkies made between when the Code was officially adopted (April 1930) and when it was effectively enforced (July 1934).

Although quite restrained for a film of its period, there are some instances of suggestive lines, controversial expressions, excessive drunkenness, distasteful violence toward women, and risqué scenarios when the unmarried lead couple platonically shares a motel room. Beyond these incidents is an overall dark quality, which is present in most Pre-Code pictures.

Lobby card for “You Can’t Run Away from It.” (MovieStillsDB)
Lobby card for “You Can’t Run Away from It.” (MovieStillsDB)

By 1956, the PCA’s heyday was over. Joseph I. Breen was the PCA’s director when it was founded, and he firmly guided it for 20 years. After he retired in 1954, his longtime assistant, Geoffrey Shurlock, proved an inept replacement. After he took over, the difference in film content is immediately noticeable. However, the Code was still supposed to be in place in 1956, and “You Can’t Run Away from It” is very much a Code film. The Pre-Code elements from the original were not included in this movie, and the overall moral restraint in its making is like that of a Breen-era film.

Many remakes don’t live up to their originals, but I prefer “You Can’t Run Away from It,” as I am quite a fan of Jack Lemmon and saw it before watching “It Happened One Night.”

Although I’ve grown to appreciate the artistry, acting, and evocation of the Great Depression spirit in the original, I think that the remake is a masterpiece in its own right. It may not be as dramatic, but it’s just as enjoyable. The acting is excellent, the cast is topnotch, and it’s a lot of fun.

“It Happened One Night” displays the truth of the Great Depression, while “You Can’t Run Away from It” shows the upbeat change in society of the ‘50s. Both can be a great night of movie-watching for couples.

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Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.