One of the most fun stories from Oscar history involves actress Claudette Colbert. In 1934, she hesitated taking the role of runaway heiress Ellie Andrews in the Frank Capra comedy, It Happened One Night. Colbert didn’t enjoy shooting the picture because she thought the results would be poor and would hurt her career. When filming wrapped, she said, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.”
Columbia Studios didn’t think much more of it than Colbert. Hoping to cut their losses, they avoided spending money on an ad campaign. Lack of faith from so many key players in the film relegated It Happened One Night to B-level movie houses, where word-of-mouth enthusiasm from fans turned it into the studio’s biggest box office hit to date.
Surprises continued when the movie garnered nominations in all major categories at the 7th Academy Awards ceremony, for screenplay, director Capra, stars Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, and even for Best Picture. Feeling certain she wouldn’t win, Colbert skipped the Oscar ceremony to embark on a cross-country train trip. It Happened One Night’s Oscar steamroll dominated the evening. One-by-one, each nomination resulted in a win. When Irving S. Cobb announced Claudette Colbert the Best Actress winner, Columbia’s studio chief sent Leroy Johnston, a member of the Academy’s press committee, to get Colbert to the ceremony before her train left.
Johnston caught Colbert in time, but even after learning she’d won, Colbert still didn’t want to pick up her Oscar. “I’ll miss my train, and I’m not dressed,” she argued, pointing out her travel attire. Once he told her an Academy Award was the Nobel Prize of motion pictures, Colbert relented and headed to the Biltmore Hotel for her statuette.
Colbert returned near the end of the ceremony as the Academy was presenting 6-year-old Shirley Temple an honorary Academy Award for making an astounding nine hit movies that kept the industry solvent during The Depression. Ceremony coordinators had Temple hand Colbert her Oscar, which she graciously accepted, then left the ceremony to catch the train that waited for her before departing. She was at the Biltmore a total of six minutes.
Like Colbert and Columbia Studios, we may underestimate the power of what we’re doing. During the creative process, we can’t know what success awaits us. More than 80 years after its release, It Happened One Night remains Colbert’s triumphant success story and holds the record for being the first of currently only three movies (including One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs) to sweep all major Oscar categories. All this for a movie Colbert originally thought would flop.