How’d you get the car?
I gave him a black eye for it and had to tie him to a tree.
The above exchange from Frank Capra‘s romantic gem It Happened One Night doesn’t necessarily give you any insight into the plot. Without the knowledge of what came before, or the visual of Claudet Colbert as spoiled sophisticate Ellie Andrews warily climbing into the car with the man she’s traveled alongside from Florida to New York City, the joke probably doesn’t pack much of an umph. But once you’ve seen this 1935 Best Picture winner as many times as I have, you never know which lines will jump out and make you laugh more than you previously did in the past.
It Happened One Night is one of those wonderful Hollywood accidents. Neither Colbert nor her co-star, Clark Gable, were the first choices for the lead roles. In fact, it wasn’t until Colbert won for Best Actress that she publicly thanked Capra for making the film (despite not even attending the Oscars, thinking she had no chance of winning). But gossipy behind-the-scene history aside, the cinematic coupling of Gable and Colbert couldn’t have been any more perfect. It’s a comedic and romantic triumph of spectacular timing, biting wit and convincing love.
The quote that leads off this essay is just one example of Gable as out-of-work newsman Peter Warne, attempting to show off and play the “tough” guy (“tough” being used lightly here). It happens late enough in the film that the audience is already well aware of the chemistry between the two and as Colbert’s face lights up as her returning hero pulls in to sweep her off her feet, we also witness the trust she now has for this man, climbing into a vehicle he’s clearly stolen, but no matter. Peter only stole it from a man that had just stolen his suitcase. It’s poetic justice, not to mention the fate of our heroes is far more important as they are rushing to the climactic conclusion we’ve all known is coming sooner or later, a conclusion, by this point, we are all eager to see.
Beginning on a yacht off the Florida coast, we’re first introduced to Ellie Andrews as she rants and raves to her father (a spectacular turn from Walter Connolly). Ellie has eloped with “King” Westley, a fortune-hunting playboy, against her father’s wishes and while he screams for an annulment she literally jumps ship, determined to get back to New York and her husband, which is where our story truly takes off.
Seeking to catch a bus to New York, Ellie runs into Peter Warne, their relationship getting off to a rocky start, both equipped with massive egos that initially causes them to butt heads only to later result in a coming together of kindred spirits. Peter learns of the heiress’ escape from her father as it makes front page headlines and the newspaper man in him sees it as just the story that could get him back in the game. He promises to help her get to where she’s headed, undetected by those searching for her, in exchange for her exclusive story. A deal is struck, hilarity and romance ensue.
Like most romantic comedies, the story’s trajectory is fairly obvious. We know how it’s all going to end and so it becomes more about the characters, the chemistry, the editing and pacing of the narrative. It’s no stretch to say Gable and Colbert are stars and as much as history tells us neither were too keen on making the movie, they clearly found chemistry and it shows in each and every scene.
Initially, Peter is none-too-sure Ellie isn’t just some spoiled brat, and Ellie doesn’t give Peter even a second thought, driven more by her want to rebel against her father, this being the first time she’s ever been remotely on her own and allowed to make a decision for herself. Ironically enough, as much as she may feel independent, once the two are on the road together it isn’t long before Peter is ordering her around, though, being the “fish out of water” she is, Ellie needs that bit of nudging, at least when it comes to getting from point A to point B.
Filled with classic scenes, the most important is most likely the moment Peter and Ellie truly come together, using their wits to fool a pair of detectives as well as a motel owner into believing they are a “perfectly nice married couple”. After the dust settles you get to one of the film’s spectacular charms, it’s ability to be sensual in the most charming of ways. Peter gets down on one knee, helps Ellie button her shirt up without even so much as a glance at her cleavage. Ellie doesn’t shy from the gesture as they revel in their ruse. Ellie and Peter may not be aware of what’s just taken place, but we are and it puts us squarely in their corner, the so-called “King” Westley becoming a roadblock in our heroes’ way to living a life happily ever after.
Despite the year it was made, today’s audiences are certain to find enjoyment in Seinfeld-esque moments such as Peter’s attempt to teach Ellie how to dunk a doughnut, the flirtatious bus passenger Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) or the classic hitchhiking scene where Ellie shows Peter how it’s done. And speaking of the film’s sensuality, as much as today’s films depend on skin to sell sex, all It Happened One Night needs is the blowing of a toy trumpet and the tumble of a blanket, giving this film more than one bit of kinship with fellow rom-com classic The Thin Man starring another stellar on screen coupling in William Powell and Myrna Loy, which hit theaters the same year.
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On a list of the all-time best romantic comedies It Happens One Night will have to be at or near the top. It would also vie for the top spot on lists of all-time best road movies as well as best ever on screen couples and this before we ever get to the film’s director and screenwriter. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin (based on the short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams) don’t shy from the film’s Depression Era setting, food and money is at a premium and all walks of life are seen on the road, and it proves to be just one more thing tying the audience to its two leads. While the opening offers us a look at the life of luxury Ellie has been leading all this time, her journey up the East coast with passengers and people the rest of us can relate to sucks us in, especially given her level of comfort in such a setting as the two join their fellow bus passengers singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze“.
After watching It Happens One Night the three words “Walls of Jericho” will take on a whole new meaning and you’ll most likely become even more critical of today’s romantic comedies, that hinge more on pratfalls and one-liners to keep the audience entertained rather than investing in character or situations the audience can relate to.
The last time anything remotely resembling a romantic comedy won Best Picture at the Oscars was when Shakespeare in Love bested Saving Private Ryan in 1999. It’s hard to imagine such a thing ever happening again, especially considering not only did It Happened One Night win Best Picture, but it also took Best Director, Actor, Actress and Writing and deservedly so, or at least equally deserving to something like The Thin Man, which I love just as much if not possibly a little more than this wonderful gem, which still holds up, now just shy of 81 years since its original release.