It Happened One Night (1934)
This movie feels like the beginning of an era. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Frank Capra directing, and a romantic-comedy plotline we’re still using today. These are all elements that became dominant over the coming years, but here they all still had that new-star smell. The storyline’s nothing new, your basic fall-in-love-over-an-involuntary-journey bit, but the journey in this case provides a wonderful look at 1930s Americana, all the little motel cabins and logistical weirdness that made up a pre-freeway road trip. This story always lives or dies on the charisma and chemistry of the leads, so it’s a good thing they’ve got Gable and Colbert, because dang.
It's interesting that this won Best Picture, because it's not the kind of thing that usually wins. It's not an Important Social Issue movie or an expensive period drama or a big glitzy musical. It's a fairly lightweight comedy, touching briefly on class and social boundaries, but mainly in service of a goofy romantic romp. It's a particularly interesting win because many of the films it beat were more traditional Best Picture types. I suspect that it won largely on the strength of Hollywood's oldest and most sacred principle: money talks.
There’s an urban legend that undershirt sales were mortally wounded by Clark Gable taking his shirt off in this movie to reveal nothing underneath but pure Gable, baby. That’s as much nonsense as Kennedy killing men’s hats with his inauguration. What’s a lot more defensible is that exposing the entire top half of Mr. Gable was responsible for this film making approximately all the money that still existed in 1934. (Give or take.) The female gaze knows what it likes.
What did this beat?
According to Wikipedia, almost everything. The nominees that year were: The Barrets of Wimpole Street, Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes The Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa! and The White Parade. Most of these have fallen into obscurity since, except for The Thin Man, which launched a franchise based on the fact that William Powell and Myrna Loy had the best sexual chemistry this side of Gomez and Morticia Addams.