“It Happened One Night” - Frank Capra (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934) is not only a classic American romance, but also an iconic representation of “American” virtues.  As such it remains one of the most beloved films, even if some people might dismiss it today as lightweight fare.

The story of the film’s production is interesting in its own right, because there was a kind of Hollywood-style ad hoc nature to the way things were put together [1]. Actors Clark Gable and Claudette (who were not yet, but soon to be, superstars) were far down the list of the producers’ preferred performers.  And the team at Columbia Pictures was continuing to fiddle with the script well into the production schedule.  When the film was first released, it was initially only a modest hit; but as it was distributed more widely, it took off at the box office and became a smash.  It swept the principal 1935 US Academy Awards, winning the five most prestigious Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Script (Robert Riskin), Best Leading Actor (Clark Gable), and Best Leading Actress (Claudette Colbert) [2].  And watching the film today, I would say that it hasn’t lost any of its magic.

So to what can we attribute It Happened One Night’s great success?  Well, for one thing it was clearly something of a romantic comedy with star performers.  And it also featured the always fascinating theme of “lovers on the run”, about which I have commented in connection with my reviews of Breathless (1960) and Badlands (1973).  But I would say that some of the film’s special virtues come from the directing style of Frank Capra.  

There are two aspects of Capra’s mise-en-scene that are notable.  For one thing ,Capra – working with his usual partners, script-writer Robert Riskin and cinematographer Joseph Walker – tended to fashion fast-paced narratives that cover a lot of ground in short spaces of screen time.  Capra’s films often jump ahead to the juicy human-interaction parts, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination concerning details as to just how we got there. He seemed to have an intuitive feel for this, since he is said to have often begun his productions, like Wong Kar-Wai of more recent times, without having much of a script in his hand. 

A second aspect of Capra’s films is his feel for “Americana” – the cultural self-image that Americans have fashioned for themselves that feature the virtues of openness, freedom, fair play, and brotherhood.  This involves an appreciation for the common man that eschews any preferential considerations of class and refinement. There are elements of fantasy to this, but not entirely so, and this is widely understood.  In fact it is due to America’s cultural image that so many people from foreign shores dream of coming to live in the US. So Capra’s films often take place in a relatively communitarian context among ordinary people, which was an appropriate setting for the popular social and political themes during Capra’s heyday in the 1930s, the period of the Great Depression. In fact Capra’s Americana theme was even more prominently present in his succeeding films, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) [3]. Here in It Happened One Night this element is much more in the background and primarily serves to provide a contextual shading to the principal male character, Peter Warne.  For this reason I think It Happened One Night is Capra’s best film.

The story of It Happened One Night races through five unequally-spaced segments (covering more than one night, by the way).

1.  Partings
In the opening scene, spoiled rich girl Ellie Andrews (played by Claudette Colbert) is shown sequestered on her millionaire father Alexander’s (Walter Connolly) yacht off Miami, where she is being confined so that she cannot interrupt her father’s efforts to annul her recent marriage to rakish fortune hunter King Westley.  But she petulantly jumps off the yacht and somehow swims ashore, eluding the rescue efforts of her father’s minions.  In the next shots, an instance of a Capra-Riskin narrative leap forward, Ellie is shown, now fully clothed and with a suitcase, furtively buying a bus ticket to New York City, where King Westley lives.  

Separately at the same Miami bus station, newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is shown in a pay phone booth drunkenly arguing with his editor in New York.  The exasperated editor tells Peter he is fired and then hangs up on him.

So Ellie and Peter, both now cut off from their past lives, get on the bus to New York and sit next to each other in the last available seat.

2.  On the Bus
Peter is brash and assertive, while Ellie is proud and used to getting her own way.  So their initial interactions are amusingly unpleasant.  At a bus stop, Peter notices a newspaper photo identifying Ellie as a renowned socialite who has gone missing.  When he mentions this to Ellie, she tries to buy him off to preserve her secrecy, thereby offending Peter’s pride.  But Peter, eyeing a big newspaper scoop for himself in the making, decides to attach himself to Ellie, and he gradually takes over as her guardian. There is an amusing scene in this connection where Peter rids Ellie of a fellow bus traveler, Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), who has ludicrously been making unseemly propositions to her.

In the evening, the bus trip is interrupted when they come to a washed-out bridge, and all the bus-riders are compelled to spend the night in a nearby motel.   Due to lack of funds, Peter and Ellie have to stay in a single cabin, so Peter registers them as man and wife.  To maintain some semblance of propriety, Peter strings a rope between the room’s two single beds and hangs a blanket from the rope, which he sarcastically calls the “Walls of Jericho”.  There is a famous scene here where Peter begins to undress in front of Ellie, causing her to flee to the other side of the “wall”.

Up to this point Peter and Ellie are together, but there is no warmth between them. Ellie wants to get back to her husband King Westley, and Peter is looking after her in order to make money.

3.  Getting Closer
In the morning Peter cordially makes breakfast for Ellie, and they begin to open up to each other. Throughout all these scenes, Peter sees himself as the worldly pragmatist and Ellie as a spoiled brat who doesn’t know anything about practical affairs.  He is flabbergasted that she doesn’t even know the proper way to dunk a doughnut, so he tutors her.  And when Alexander’s hired detectives come to the motel searching for Ellie, our errant couple are thrilled that their instantly improvised cover act as a bickering married couple fools the detectives. But Alexander is getting desperate, and he announces in the press a $10,000 reward to anyone who can return her to him.  

Back on the bus (the washed-out bridge problem now apparently solved), the passengers are serenaded by some minstrel musicians who are traveling with them.  This is a purely Capraesque interlude, wherein the disparate collection of bus riders show their inherent fraternity by all joining in to sing “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”.  Even the bus driver exuberantly joins in the raucous chorus, which leads him to crash the bus off the road.  With the bus disabled and Peter more worried about other riders learning Ellie’s identity (Shapeley already knows and is sent packing by Peter), Peter ushers Ellie off the road and into the forest.

Now alone together, there is more bickering and bantering between the always assertive Peter and the complaining Ellie, but they are getting to know each other better.  They spend the night sleeping among some haystacks, and there is a point where the momentarily compassionate Peter almost kisses her.  The next day out on the road, they try hitchhiking, and Ellie surprisingly (and famously) demonstrates to a chagrined Peter that a woman’s way can be better.

Ellie’s father, Alexander, has now become so worried about his vanished daughter that he finally agrees to stop contesting her marriage with Westley.  All is forgiven, he tells her through the press, just come home.

Back on the road again (now with a car that Peter has commandeered from a thief), Ellie, who is warming to Peter, urges him to stop at motel a few hours short of New York City.  In their cabin with another “Wall of Jericho” blanket in place, Ellie asks Peter across the partition if he has ever thought about love.  He confides to her his dreams, and Ellie is so moved, she rushes around the blanket and throws herself at his feet, telling him she loves him. Peter, accustomed to his chaperone role and always thinking of her as a spoiled brat, is too shocked to respond.  He tells her to return to her bed. Later, in the early morning, though, he realizes that she is truly the one for him.  With Ellie still asleep, he rushes out of the cabin and drives to New York in order to quickly resurrect his job at the newspaper, so that he can return and manfully make a proper marriage proposal.

It looks like they have found their true love.  But there is still one-quarter of the narrative remaining, and it is here that the dramatic tension mounts.

4.  Misunderstandings
Ellie wakes up to find Peter gone, and she assumes he has abandoned her, probably to get the $10,000 reward from her father.  She phones her father, and he and Westley come to fetch her.  When Peter learns that she has returned to Westley, he feels that he was just used all along by Ellie and abandons his hopes.  So both Peter and Ellie have both lost faith in each other.

5.  The Wedding Ceremony
Ellie wants to go ahead and have a formal, high-society-blessed wedding, and preparations are begun. However, Alexander suspects something is wrong and gets Ellie confide to him that she fell in love with Peter, but feels scorned by him.  She says she must go through with her planned life with Westley anyway in order to save face.

Just before the wedding, Peter, still concerned with his manly pride, grumpily comes to Alexander’s office, not to ask for the $10,000 reward, but merely to get paid $39.60 for his expenses with Ellie. As Peter is about to depart, Alexander pursues his suspicions: 

Alexander: “Do you love my daughter?”
Peter: “Any guy that would fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head                      examined.” 
. . .   

Alexander: “Do you love her?” 
Peter: “A normal human being man couldn’t live under the same roof with her without            going nutty.  She’s my idea of nothing.” 
Alexander: “I asked you a simple question: do you love her?” 
Peter: “Yes! But don’t hold that against me.  I’m a little screwy myself.”
Alexander now knows what the viewer has known: Peter and Ellie love each other.  So it is clear to Alexander that with time running out, something has to be done.  The outdoor wedding ceremony is about to begin.  King Westley flamboyantly arrives in his autogyro. The stage is set for the dramatic finale.

What makes It Happened One Night special is the combination of the on-the-road interactions between Peter and Ellie and the melodramatic events of that last quarter of the film (acts 4 and 5). 

The acting in the film is generally appropriate and effective for the fast-paced narrative in which it is situated.  And of course Clark Gable displays his good-humored, virile magnetism.  But I think Claudette Colbert’s performance as Ellie is an even more significant virtue.  Capra apparently found her difficult on the production set, but his improvisational style probably helped bring out what is truly a spirited and emotionally moving performance [4].  All in all, this was one of Hollywood’s most satisfying productions.

One of the interesting dramatic highlights is the role played by Ellie’s father, Alexander.  In many films about a star-crossed young couple, the parents are most often roadblocks to romantic passions. They are usually more concerned about social class and their own interests than about their children’s romantic happiness.  And in the early part of the film, Alexander seems to be just such a typical domineering parent.  But in the end, the greatest romantic in the story is the parent, Alexander. Like the elders’ romantic sensibilities in A Room with a View (1985), we see that it is this aging parent who is revealed to be the truly benign agent of romantic love.

  1. Farran Smith Nehme, “It Happened One Night: All Aboard!”, The Criterion Collection, (17 November 2014). 
  2. There have only been three films in history that have swept the “Big Five” Oscars.  The other two are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
  3. Nevertheless, Capra was not a supporter of the US Democratic Party, which was the preferred party of the labor unions.  He was a lifelong Republican.
  4. Eric Pace, “Claudette Colbert, Unflappable Heroine of Screwball Comedies, Is Dead At 92", The New York Times (31 July 1996). 

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