It Happened One Night Movie Analysis Essay

Background

It Happened One Night (1934) is one of the greatest romantic comedies in film history, and a film that has endured in popularity. It is considered one of the pioneering "screwball" romantic comedies of its time, setting the pattern for many years afterwards along with another contemporary film, The Thin Man (1934).

The escapist theme of the film, appropriate during the Depression Era, is the story of the unlikely romantic pairing of a mis-matched couple - a gruff and indifferent, recently-fired newspaper man (Gable) and a snobbish, superior-acting heiress (Colbert) - a runaway on the lam. It is a reversal of the Cinderella story (the heroine rejects her wealthy lifestyle), a modern tale with light-hearted sex appeal in which courtship and love triumph over class conflicts, socio-economic differences, and verbal battles of wit.

The madcap film from Columbia Studios (one of the lesser studios) was an unexpected runaway box office sleeper hit (especially after it began to play in small-town theaters), and it garnered the top five Academy Awards (unrivaled until 1975, forty-one years later by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) - and then again by The Silence of the Lambs (1991).) It won all five of its nominated categories: Best Picture, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra), and Best Adaptation (Robert Riskin).

The film, composed mostly of a road trip (by bus, car, foot, and by thumb in locales such as bus depots or interiors of buses, and the open road) by the social-class-unmatched couple, contains some of the most classic scenes ever made: the "Walls of Jericho" scene in an auto-camp bungalow so that they can sleep in the same room out of wedlock, the doughnuts-dunking lesson, the hitchhiking scene, the night-time scene on a haystack in a deserted barn, and the dramatic wedding scene. With his good-natured, street-smart, and breezy performance, Gable influenced the un-sale of undershirts by taking off his shirt and exposing his bare chest, and bus travel by women substantially increased as a result of the film.

Capra had originally wanted MGM stars Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy to play the lead roles, but ended up, surprisingly, with top MGM star Gable 'on-loan' (as punishment for refusing a role opposite Joan Crawford) from the studio. [Another Montgomery film, Fugitive Lovers (1934) with a semi-similar tale was released at the same time by MGM.] Others who turned down the female lead role, before Colbert accepted the four weeks of work for $50,000, included Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, and Constance Bennett.

The screenplay, co-written by director Frank Capra (uncredited) and Robert Riskin, was based on an August 1933 Cosmopolitan magazine story titled "Night Bus" by Samuel Hopkins Adams. [Another of Adams' short stories about a woman traveling on a bus, "Last Trip" in the March edition of Collier's Magazine, may also be considered a source for the film.] In both 1945 and 1956, it was remade as musicals: Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) starring Ann Miller, and You Can't Run Away From It (1956) with Jack Lemmon and June Allyson.

Animation expert Friz Freleng, in his unpublished memoirs, claimed that the film helped to inspire the creation of various cartoon characters:

  • Bugs Bunny's fast-talking personality was partially based on Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), and also related to the one mention by Gable of an imaginary hitman named 'Bugs' in the film; (Bugs Bunny's debut film was Porky's Hare Hunt (1938)); Bugs Bunny's carrot-eating technique was based on Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and the way he talked while chewing on a carrot
  • Yosemite Sam was inspired by Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly)
  • Pepe LePew was inspired by King Westley (Jameson Thomas)
The Story

The film's opening line is the question that the portly, millionaire tycoon father Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly) asks about his angry daughter's behavior and refusal to eat:

Hunger strike, eh? How long has this been going on?

On his yacht moored in the sunny waters off Florida with him is his spoiled, stubborn, devil-may-care headstrong heiress daughter Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert). In an impulsive moment and possibly to spite her father, she has just married (in name only) a worthless playboy, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), a fortune-hunting, ne'er-do-well celebrity aviator. Objecting to the wedding, although Westley is in her own upper social class, Mr. Andrews has kidnapped his daughter and brought her aboard his yacht, holding her as a prisoner against her will. He plans to annul the unconsummated marriage to the mercenary, worthless, stuffed-shirt playboy he despises.

Ellie is first seen backed up against a stateroom wall by her father - both are engaged in a vicious argument. In a temper tantrum, Ellie defiantly shouts at her father for controlling her life ("I'm over twenty-one and so is he") and not letting her assert her freedom:

Ellie You've been telling me what not to do ever since I can remember.
Mr. Andrews: That's because you've always been a stubborn idiot.
Ellie: I come from a long line of stubborn idiots.

She knocks away her father's fork (with a piece of steak on it), overturns his tray of food all over the floor, and he reacts by slapping her - she is surprised. Fully clothed, she rushes up on deck, up onto the railing and effortlessly dives overboard, and then swims ashore to freedom and independence - as if it were that simple to 'jump ship'. Her father helplessly watches as she swims away, and calls for his staff to "lower the boats." Detectives are dispatched to find her - "Watch all roads, airports and railway stations in Miami."

The next scene is introduced by a sign reading: Night Bus to New York. In the Miami bus station, detectives can't believe she would take a lower-class night bus. "We're wasting our time. Can you imagine Ellie Andrews riding on a bus?" To evade her father's search by traveling incognito, she has another elderly lady buy a ticket for her on a Greyhound bus - a rickety, proletarian means of transportation which would be unlikely for a rich heiress. She is determined to escape detection and join her husband (to spite her father) after a night bus ride from Miami, Florida to New York.

The other major character in the film is tall, outspoken newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who is first seen surrounded by a mob of onlookers listening to "history in the making" as he is arguing with his fatherly editor-boss Joe Gordon (Charles C. Wilson) in a telephone booth in another part of the bus station. He has recently been fired for drinking on the job - and turning in a story in "free verse." He drunkenly tells off his boss on the other end of the line:

In a pig's eye, you will!...Hey listen monkey face, when you fired me, you fired the best newshound your filthy scandal sheet ever had...That was free verse, you gashouse palooka!

The crowd outside the phone booth has overheard his side of the conversation and believes he has won the argument, but he has been play-acting - his boss is no longer on the line. With a headstrong display of an assertive will and dramatic theatricality, he shouts into the receiver and declares his independence from the newspaper (as Ellie did against familial control) long after he has been fired and disconnected: "Oh, so you're changing your tune, eh? You're a little late with your apologies. I wouldn't go back to work for you if you begged me on your hands and knees. And I hope this will be a lesson to you!" [Onlookers refer to Peter Warne as "the King" -- Gable's nickname in real life.]

Peter, like another 'father-less' passenger, has also purchased a ticket for the crowded night bus ride to New York, traveling on the bus because he is down-and-out and broke, and that is the only fare he can afford. These circumstances will soon bring the two main characters together and contrast their status in the social hierarchy. The only bus seat left is in the back of the bus, and it is covered with a bundle of newspapers - Warne hurls through the window to the platform. After the bus driver (Ward Bond) objects to his brash action, he replies:

I never did like the idea of sitting on newspaper. I did it once, and all the headlines came off on my white pants. On the level! It actually happened. Nobody bought a paper that day. They just followed me around over town and read the news on the seat of my pants.

While he is engaged in an altercation with the driver, Ellie quickly takes the seat that he has cleared off. In their first encounter together, he orders her out of his seat: "Now listen, I put up a stiff fight for that seat. So if it's just the same to you - scram." But since it is the last seat on the bus, and the seats are "first come, first serve," they must share it. The front of the bus fills the screen, with its several state licenses, lit headlights, and its destination over the front window: NEW YORK. As the bus lurches forward while she is obstinately putting her own bag up in the rack, she is thrown into his lap. He tells her: "Next time you drop in, bring your folks."

At a night-time rest stop, where 5 cent cones and hot dogs and hamburgers for 10 cents are advertised, Ellie listlessly leans up against the side of the bus, smoking a cigarette. Her small briefcase is stolen with all her money in it (except four dollars). Peter acts gentlemanly, but is unable to catch and apprehend the thief for her. To his surprise, she refuses to have it reported, so that she won't be found out: "I don't want it reported!...Can you understand English? Would you please keep out of my affairs. I want to be left alone." He recognizes that she is a spoiled brat: "Why, you ungrateful brat!"

At the next stop, a thirty-minute breakfast stop in Jacksonville, Ellie has finally fallen asleep next to the newspaperman. She wakes up clutching his lapel, with her head nestled on his shoulder. She asks the driver to wait for her, expecting the bus to wait while she has a leisurely breakfast. The bus takes off without her when she returns twenty minutes late. Peter deliberately misses the bus too, reacquainting himself:

Remember me? I'm the fellow you slept on last night.

The next bus leaves twelve hours later, but she reminds him of her independence: "You needn't concern yourself about me. I can take care of myself."

Then he reveals to her that he knows her true identity: "You'll never get away with it, Miss Andrews." During the stop, he had discovered who she is - a runaway heiress - through a front-page headline in the Florida Journal newspaper - ELLEN ANDREWS ESCAPES FATHER. Acting in character, knowing that money can get her anything she wants, Ellie bribes him into not informing her father about her whereabouts - while touching his chest: "Listen, if you promise not to do it, I'll pay you. I'll pay you as much as he will. You won't gain anything by giving me away, as long I'm willing to make it worth your while. I've got to get to New York without being stopped. It's terribly important to me." Again, Peter berates her as a spoiled brat:

You know, I had you pegged right from the jump. Just a spoiled brat of a rich father. The only way you get anything is to buy it, isn't it? You're in a jam and all you can think of is your money. It never failed, did it? Ever hear of the word humility? No, you wouldn't. I guess it would never occur to you to just say, 'Please mister, I'm in trouble, will you help me?' No, that would bring you down off your high horse for a minute. Well, let me tell you something, maybe it will take a load off your mind. You don't have to worry about me. I'm not interested in your money or your problem. You, King Westley, your father. You're all a lot of hooey to me!

At the Western Union office, he telegrams his New York Mail boss, Joe Gordon, about a possible scoop - sending it collect:

Am I laughing? The biggest scoop of the year just dropped in my lap. I know where Ellen Andrews is...How would you like to have the story, you big tub of mush...Will try and get it. What I said about never writing another line for you still goes. Are you burning? PETER WARNE

Looking Back at "It Happened One Night"

by Michał Oleszczyk

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Editor's note: This article appeared originally on moviemezzanine.com. It is reproduced here by permission. Read more film-related content at moviemezzanine.com.


We get so used to some movies simply being around that our own praise for them may itself become a cliché. The minute "It Happened One Night" is brought up, a handful of old chestnuts gets inevitably evoked: its classic status as the ultimate romantic comedy, its Oscar Crown glory and its contribution to the alleged demise of undershirt sales in the U.S. (did anyone ever fact-check that one, by the way?). It’s not until we watch the movie again—preferably on a big screen and with a responsive audience, that we may rediscover how truly great it is. "It Happened One Night" is one of the easiest movies to love and one of the hardest to think of as a work of art.

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The story is that of a spoiled heiress, Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) rebelling against her mogul dad (Walter Connolly) and marrying a celebrity aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas)—only to spend most of the film trying to reunite with him and discovering she’s really in love with a wisecracking reporter named Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Ellie is both clueless and stubborn, conceited and playful—there’s a streak of wit and resilience about her that makes Peter see her as both a scoop and a catch. He offers her help in getting to Westley in exchange for her story. By the end of the film Ellie elopes again. This time it’s from, not towards Westley.

For all the freshness of Robert Riskin’s screenplay (adapted from a short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams), the Gable/Colbert dynamics of constant reproach and attraction owes a lot to "Much Ado About Nothing’s" pair of Benedick and Beatrice. (It will also get successfully replayed between Gable and Vivien Leigh in "Gone With the Wind", another story of a spoiled heiress being wooed by a rugged and gallant smartass not giving a damn.) The movie extends attraction of wits into attraction of bodies and remains still sexy as hell: the Walls of Jericho scene, with an old blanket serving as an all-too-wobbly chaperon, is shot as luridly as anything in Joseph Von Sternberg high-end pervy extravaganzas of the same era.

Pauline Kael famously said that American comedies of 1930s presented marriage and courtship as a vaudeville act, and love is indeed equaled with roleplaying throughout "It Happened One Night". Peter and Ellie first click as a couple when they act out an impromptu scene to dupe the detectives sent by Ellie’s father. The entire mock-fight, taking place in a camping bungalow amidst lovingly depicted morning disarray, serves as the first instance of intimacy that’s enjoyed by both Peter and Ellie. As they impersonate conjugal strife all too plausibly (can it be that we get a glimpse into their much later married life?), they take physical pleasure in suddenly becoming a working-class bickering couple.

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The scene also includes one of the loveliest and most erotic pieces of business in the film: as soon as the detectives leave, Peter kneels before Ellie and buttons up her blouse, all the while congratulating her on the performance she just gave. He doesn’t have to look down her cleavage to signal his desire: putting on some clothes had rarely been that sexy (a point made even stronger by the fact that there’s hardly a costume change in the film—Peter and Ellie are like a pair of commedia dell’arte mimes, putting on identities even as their costumes remain the same). Even more than "Dirty Dancing, It Happened One Night" is a movie in which sexual bliss is signified by lovers’ harmony as performers.

For a story bearing visible traces of "The Taming of a Shrew" all over it, there’s surprisingly little chauvinism to "It Happened One Night". Ellie does get spanked, but it’s a playful gesture not meant at doing harm (though I bet Amanda Bonner of "Adam’s Rib" would beg to differ). What’s crucial is that Peter doesn’t want Ellie to change, but simply to join him in his folly (“I’m a little screwy myself!”). The film is by no means a taming vehicle for its heroine: the second Ellie’s father slaps her for disobedience, Capra makes it clear both him and his daughter are shocked by the gesture; the immediate regret is as palpable and salient as the tears welling up in Ellie’s eyes.

Besides, Peter’s machismo and bravado are jabbed at so frequently in the course of the action (most spectacularly in the mock-phallic hitchhiking scene, when Peter’s thumb is revealed as lacking and less powerful than some of Ellie’s parts), that the whole film is blissfully devoid of the same masculine triumphalism that marred genuine classics like "Woman of the Year" and "The Philadelphia Story". In fact, some scenes of lengthy discussions of everyday minutiae, such as donut-dunking or the right definition of piggybacking, have a proto-Seinfeldian feel to them. It’s not difficult to see Peter and Ellie as pre-sexual revolution incarnations of Jerry and Elaine, who don’t sleep with each other before both marriage and Peter’s status as a breadwinner are secured.

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Of course, this being a Frank Capra film, "It Happened One Night" is a Depression Era movie through and through. Apart from all the images of people traversing the country in search for jobs (bits as subliminal as they are persistent), and apart from constant hints at hunger and class divisions, there’s also the widespread fascination with mass media and news itself. No true 1930s comedy can get by without at least one desperate call for “holding the presses”, and Capra’s film is no exception, thanks to Charles C. Wilson’s wonderfully aggravated newspaper editor (itself a fossil in our post-printing-press eyes). The film bristles with popular culture references of its era: Peter impersonates a Warner Brothers’ gangster to scare the obnoxious passenger named Shapley (Roscoe Karns), as well as subverts the hit song from Disney’s Silly Symphony of the year before, making it clear that only virgins are afraid of the “Big Bad Wolf”.

As for the obligatory soupçon of saccharine (it may be telling that the one word a telegraph clerk Peter talks to has trouble spelling is ‘mush’), Capra doesn’t lay it on as thickly here as in some other films (such as that pre-"Cheers" utopia of oddballs, "You Can’t Take It With You"). The communal singing of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”, which interrupts the action and morphs into a wonderfully democratic vision of the night bus as a society in eternal transit, is capped by the movie’s most shameless grab at our heartstrings. A mother passes out from hunger and her little boy is telling the story of her hardship: the cloying effect is only strengthened by the fact that Claire McDowell (playing the Mom) looks like she’s been transferred whole from any of the fifty D.W. Griffith silent shorts she appeared in between 1908 and 1913. Still, even this relatively cheap bit is finished off with a joke, when Peter pretends to be a millionaire despite just becoming more broke than ever before.

"It Happened One Night" is a deeply Emersonian movie, and—by extension—a deeply American one. King Westley is a faintly British, aristocratic milquetoast: even his skills as a pilot don’t lend him any virility and instead are presented as a mere fad that Peter looks down upon. It’s Gable’s character who embodies self-reliance and utopian thinking that mark all American dreamers: his vision of a life on a remote island is as impractical as it’s alluring in its complete independence to hierarchies of rank and affluence. In the end, all he wants is the $39.60 owed to him and the girl he loves.

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Last but not least: for all its humor, sexiness and wisdom, "It Happened One Night" is also damn beautiful to look at. Joseph Walker’s cinematography can be both gritty and gauzy, focusing on tiny confined spaces and on vast open ones (one of my favorite shots in the film is the one following Peter and Ellie down the road they walk—when they both look back at us it’s almost as if they were checking if we’re still following their story). Capra’s propensity for long takes is evident throughout, with some immobile set-pieces serving as exemplary instances of comic timing, while others achieve wonderful realism by simply moving through long stretches of space.

Eighty years after being made, "It Happened One Night" remains a mirror and a measuring stick—not only for all subsequent romantic comedies, but also (perhaps more significantly) for all lovers who came after Peter and Ellie and dream of a similar union of bodies, wits and fates.


For Steven Boone, whose description of ‘Arthur’ (a direct heir to this movie) still has yet to leave my head.

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