‘Do you love my daughter?’
‘Any guy that'd fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.’
‘Now that's an evasion. I asked you a simple question. Do you love her?’
‘Yes! But don't hold that against me, I'm a little screwy myself!’
In 1934’s ‘It Happened One Night’ Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a society heiress who runs away from her father to rejoin her lover in New York. Chased by dad’s detectives, she travels incognito, cross-country on a bus. She reluctantly accepts help from Peter Warne, an out-of-work reporter, played by Clark Gable. It’s a charming, wisecracking comedy, with a sweet romance at its centre and random discourses at its edges: on dunking biscuits, hitching lifts and how to ride piggy-back.
At one stage on their protracted bus journey together Ellie and Peter stop off at a roadside hotel and are obliged to share a room. Peter suspends a blanket between their beds, a ‘Wall of Jericho’ to preserve their decency. Whilst rehearsing for the scene in which they prepare for bed, Gable found it difficult to get through his quick-fire lines and undress at the same time. He determined to shoot the sequence without his undershirt so as to make it flow more easily. This subsequently led to a dramatic decline in undershirt sales across America and Gable was blamed forever after for crippling the underwear industry.
Creative enterprises generate any number of unintended consequences. In another scene of ‘It Happened One Night’ Gable chatted while chewing on a raw carrot. This inspired the characterisation of Bugs Bunny. Despite our best endeavours to make our creative outputs more scientific and predictable, they have an infinite capacity to surprise us - with any number of random repercussions, copycat crazes, and accidental asides.
Poor Judges of Our Own Work
Clark Gable didn’t originally want to appear in ‘It Happened One Night’. He was loaned to Columbia by MGM as punishment for his affair with Joan Crawford. His first words when he appeared on set were: ‘Let’s get this over with.’
Claudette Colbert didn’t want to appear in the film either. She had not enjoyed working with director Frank Capra on their previous movie together and she only signed up when promised double her normal fee and a short four-week production. On completing the film, Colbert confided to a friend: ‘I’ve just finished the worst picture I’ve ever made.’
So confident was Colbert that her performance wouldn’t win an Oscar that she decided not to attend the ceremony. She had to be summoned back from a train station at the last moment to receive her award.
In the event ‘It Happened One Night’ became the first film to win the Oscar ‘Grand Slam’ of Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. It was Columbia’s biggest commercial success to-date and kicked off a boom in Screwball Comedies.
To Colbert’s and Gable’s credit, they gave ‘It Happened One Night’ their best performances, despite their complete lack of faith in its qualities.
Creative people are not necessarily good at predicting winners or judging their own work. I recall one team refusing to put their name to a Levi’s ad they had written because it had been adjusted in the final edit. They changed their minds later when the film won bucket-loads of awards.
We all have opinions and perspectives on the Agencies where we will thrive, the accounts that will be fruitful for us, the scripts that will be award winners. But we never really know for sure. My first job was as a Qualitative Market Researcher and the very last project I worked on back in 1989 was an Audi study for BBH. This chance event led to me being hired by BBH and staying there for 25 years.
We can’t be too calculating with our careers, because our careers have a mind of their own. Sometimes we need to set aside our subjective assessments; to familiarise ourselves with Fickle Fate. We need to leave a little space for luck.
Leaving a Little Space for Luck
Frank Capra certainly seems to have been happy to accommodate a certain amount of luck and spontaneity in his creative process, as is evident from his description of his freewheeling approach on ‘It Happened One Night.’
‘We made the picture really quickly - four weeks. We stumbled through it; we laughed our way through it. And this goes to show you how much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time means in show business; how sometimes no preparation at all is better than all the preparation in the world…You can never out-guess this thing called creativity. It happens in the strangest places and under the strangest of circumstances.’
The legendary screenwriter William Goldman went further still. He was convinced that knowledge and certainty are alien to the creative industry:
‘Nobody knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’
I’m well aware that genius requires 10,000 hours of practice and so forth; that Thomas Jefferson said: ‘I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.’ But I would still maintain that creative enterprises shouldn’t practice away spontaneity; that they should learn to accommodate uncertainty. Without chance we wouldn’t have Pacemakers, Penicillin or Play-Doh; X Rays, microwave ovens or Cadbury’s Flake.
Do Interesting Things…
If luck and good fortune play such an important part in creativity, should we give up on preparation and planning altogether? Should we set aside forecasting and prediction? Should we just abandon ourselves to chance?
That would be taking things too far. It’s the responsibility of leadership to create the conditions for success, and in a creative business those conditions include, amongst other things, serendipity, spontaneity and happy accident. I think it is possible to pursue a planned course while leaving oneself open to opportunity; alert to possibilities. Sir John Hegarty would often say: ‘Do interesting things and interesting things happen to you.’ I’m sure that’s good advice.
Some fifty years after the release of ‘It Happened One Night’ Hegarty thought it would be interesting to have the hero of his laundrette-set Levi’s ad strip down to his boxer shorts. This rather stunned a culture hitherto wedded to Y-fronts and sparked a huge new craze for boxer shorts. The underwear industry finally had something to be thankful for.