One of the assumptions of Hollywood film history has it that Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) had a very slow success, only becoming a hit when it moved from downtown, opening run sites in big cities to the neighborhoods and then to small towns. Capra himself would talk about this (and probably started the story), and it has become standard in much of the scholarship about the film, that it was the everyday folk in the country who “discovered” it, and made the more snobbish filmgoers in big cities think again and take notice. But actually, when the film opened at the end of February and the beginning of March 1934 in Los Angeles and New York it did exceptionally well in both places, and also did great business in cities that were almost as important in Hollywood film exhibition at the time: Buffalo, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Kansas City for instance. We can chart the movies’ box office via the receipts published each week in the Motion Picture Herald. In Seattle, for example, the film was one of the highest money-earners in the city for the spring of 1934 , bringing in $7,000 worth of business in its first week after it opened an exclusive run at the Liberty theatre, and then, remarkably, being held over for at least two more weeks and hardly losing any of its audience at all.
So before It Happened One Night made it out to urban neighborhoods or to small towns, it was a hit. It’s worth pointing out, though, that even while it still showed at first-run, downtown cinemas, It Happened One Night played in more obscure places. In early-March, 1934, for instance, in Princeton, Minnesota, and at the same time in Iowa Falls, Iowa, and also in Erie, Kansas, with the film drawing huge crowds wherever it showed. This was an extraordinary distribution plan for a major American film, with many Hollywood movies taking anywhere from three to six months to make their way from cities out to the sticks. If anything, then, It Happened One Night was something of a simultaneous sensation in urban areas and small towns, a rarity at the time.
This is all a roundabout way of arriving in Paris. We should keep in mind, though, that like most American films at the time, Capra designed his for an international market, and there were other cities, particularly in Europe and especially Paris, that mattered a great deal to a movie’s bottom line. Just as Capra’s studio, Columbia, wasted no time in getting the film to Griswold, Iowa or Dante, Virginia, so too did it hurry to get the film to France. At a time when Hollywood movies might take six months or a year to arrive overseas, It Happened One Night, as New York-Miami (indicating the points of the bus ride in the film) opened in Paris towards the end of April, 1934, less than two months after its American premiere.
New York-Miami did not catch Paris by surprise. At least since 1931 and Dirigible, any new Capra film was highly anticipated by critics and regular viewers. In October, 1931, Dirigible had opened in the eighth arrondissement at the Marigny cinema, one of the most upscale exhibition sites in Paris; the movie Dirigible replaced there had been the great event on the Parisian film scene for all of 1931, Chaplin’s Les Lumières de la ville (City Lights , which premiered there in April). Just a few months after Dirigible left the Marigny, Leontine Sagan’s Jeunes filles en uniforme (Mädchen in Uniform ) would have a sensational run there.
Like Dirigible, New York-Miami, in English with French subtitles, opened at a major cinema in the eighth arrondissement, this time the Ermitage on the Champs-Élysées, an exhibition site that specialized in the most important American films. La Semaine à Paris, a weekly listing of cultural events in the city, advertised the movie as a “masterpiece of high spirits and gaiety.” Week after week, New York-Miami stayed at the Ermitage, until the end of August, a four-month run that, while not unprecedented in Paris, certainly indicated the popularity of the film. Almost immediately the film moved to two other cinemas, and still with subtitles rather than in a dubbed version, the Gaité-Rochechouart in the ninth arrondissement and the Clichy-Palace in the seventeenth. For the next few weeks, the film moved to other cinemas; rather than blanketing the city, however, in the manner of most movies at the time, it would still only play in one or two sites, a sign of the exclusive status of the film as well as its popularity. In October, for instance, New York-Miami showed just at the Victor Hugo cinema in the sixteenth arrondissement, and still in the original, subtitled version. Indicating the staying power of the film, as late as May, 1935, Film Complet, a magazine that published a ciné-roman version of a major film in each issue, featured New York-Miami on its cover, along with Paul Nolleau’s retelling (“Money doesn’t bring happiness,” Nolleau began his story: L’Argent ne fait pas le bonheur).
There’s no question, then, that New York-Miami was one of the bigger hits in Paris in 1934. We know, though, that Hollywood studios arranged production and distribution in terms of seasons rather than years. Columbia was one of the “Little Three” studios, along with Universal and United Artists, and couldn’t compare to the “Big Five” of MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO. As a result, they made only one or two major films a season, films that would be used as the attraction for cinemas to rent an entire “block” of the studio’s films (from which the term “block booking” derived). It Happened One Night served just that function, and was Columbia’s most significant film from 1933-34, the movie the studio depended on as a means of getting exhibition deals for the rest of its product. It stands to reason that the studio would use the same distribution strategy for one of its very few big budget, important films of the 1934-35 season, One Night of Love (1934), which featured the great opera performer Grace Moore, who enjoyed a few years of significant film stardom.
That film opened in the United States in September, 1934. But it didn’t come to Paris for five months, when it first showed at the elegant Édouard VII cinema in the ninth arrondissement in February, 1935. I haven’t been able to track down the release pattern for One Night of Love in the United States, to see if it went to small towns even as it played in big cities, in the manner of It Happened One Night. Clearly, however, the international distribution systems for the films were absolutely different.
After New York-Miami finished its run in Paris, the film seemed to follow more established distribution patterns. Capra’s movie didn’t appear in Algiers, for instance, typically one of the first North African stops for an American film, until May, 1935, slightly more than a year following its premiere in Paris, in keeping with a typical time frame. Nevertheless, in the US and France, this is the movie that stands out for its unusual exhibition trajectory. There may well have been others, but I have yet to find an American film besides this one that played simultaneously for an extended period in major American cities, American small towns, and Paris. One of the major hits of 1934, then, was also a unique one. There was no slow, regional buildup to the success of Capra’s film. Rather, the popular acclaim was instantaneous and global.