Monday, August 27, 2012

It Happened One Night (1934)

Note: It Happened One Night screens this Wednesday night, part of TIFF in the Park 2012…


How many men dreamed, in 1934, of reading Claudette Colbert’s mind? In It Happened One Night, I think she let them. Or Frank Capra did. Their little dance—in which Capra’s lens holds fast to Colbert’s face, and that magnificent face delivers, wordlessly, what bubbles behind it—is the stuff of truth. And it elevates what could have been a tedious and silly film to something legendary.

It Happened One Night stars Colbert as a spoiled socialite, Ellie Andrews; recently eloped, and now on the run from her domineering father (Walter Connolly), who has vowed to have her marriage annulled. Clark Gable plays Peter Warne, a boozing reporter in between jobs and in need of a scoop. They meet in a bus station—Ellie on her way to New York City to meet her husband; and Peter, seemingly, on the way to nowhere. 

Here is a situation pregnant with comic potential. And given the principles, and the time period, you might expect any number of screwball happenings to commence, and yet, they don’t. Peter explains to Ellie early on that she—or rather, her scandal—is his meal-ticket. She’s broke. Either she rides with him to NYC, giving him access to her thoughts, trials and tribulations every step of the way, or he rats her out to her dad. This is blackmail, and an obvious plot-device, but little is made of it. 

Ellie, we figure, is a fish out of water; a pampered rich-kid unable to cope with crowded bus-rides or line-ups for the communal shower or anything else money can’t immediately bypass. That’s how Peter sees her, anyway. He nicknames her “brat”. Presumably, this is something she has to overcome, and not on her own. But what we see instead is a quick adapter. Told she has to wait at the back of the shower line, she does so. Out of money, she’s willing to beg. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the sing-a-long aboard the bus, she proves unaware of the words to “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”; but, by the second verse, she’s singing right along with the rest. Ellie is no hothouse flower. 

This is not a film about Peter learning to love or Ellie learning to survive. Both have these talents in abundance, right from the start. They just haven’t been forced to use them. What it’s really about is letting go: learning to recognize those needless boundaries by which they limit themselves, then dropping them. 

Capra’s symbol for this is the “Wall of Jericho”: a blanket, slung over a clothesline, bisecting every room Peter and Ellie share along their trip. This barrier exists for more than modesty’s sake. Breachable in an instant, its continuation proves that neither Peter nor Ellie have given in to their growing attraction. Were Ellie a loose woman, she could slink beneath or around this wall and into the opposite bed. Were Peter a villain, he could tug that blanket off that line and get to seducing, or worse. But up it stays. 

Nowadays, a script would have put these two in the sack before the half-way mark. Ellie’s marital status, which the film seems fairly ambivalent about, even by mid-30s standards, would scarcely matter at all today. That the marriage is unhappy, or unconsummated, or ill-advised (it is presumably all three) would be enough to dispense with it. I’m glad for the restriction here, actually, since it makes the film more interesting. But it speaks to the film’s weaknesses, too.

It Happened One Night can feel old-fashioned. And the moments when it does are jarring, because they occur within a film that, at other times, feels progressive, offering an unusually strong, capable, and unconventional female lead. Knowing that the typical Gable character is an assertive brute doesn’t make it any easier to watch him spanking Colbert, or any less tiresome to see tough-minded Ellie burst into hysterics when Peter wanders away to find food. As a fan of very old movies, I can appreciate that standards change, and that a truly sensitive viewer must be an adaptable one. However, these scenes seem to undercut the character Colbert and Capra were knowingly creating at the time. They’re a sop to the mainstream, and unnecessary.

I enjoy Gable more as a personality than an actor anyway—and so it is here. His Peter Warnes is a typical Gable alpha-male, whose feelings are in doubt only until he declares them. His charisma is, of course, gigantic. Both Gable’s and Peter’s, I mean. They are no different. 

Colbert is more interesting. She knows Ellie through and through. She is not fooled by lines on a page. Early on, Ellie uses high language to address Peter: calling him “young man”, even though he’s clearly older than her. In a lesser comedy, this would be a literal expression of her state of mind. But Colbert, in this film, makes it clear that Ellie speaks this way to mask her fear. Capra lets the camera linger on her after she talks, and then we see it: her despair. Other times, this technique reveals other emotions: good humor, after she’s kicked to the back of the shower line; and lust, after she wishes Peter a chaste goodnight. Peter says what he’s thinking; Ellie, almost never. 

In a film that promises comic reversals then provides us practically none, Colbert’s performance makes us forget why we ever expected those reversals—or would’ve wanted them. We let go of what we thought we needed. We glory in what we’ve got. 

Just like Ellie. 

Where to see It Happened One Night: 
It Happened One Night, winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, will be screened outdoors this Wednesday, August 29, at about 8:30 pm—the last of this year’s TIFF in the Park: Screwball Comedies features. 

TIFF in the Park 2012, a co-production of the Toronto International Film Festival and the Toronto Entertainment District BIA, takes place at David Pecaut Square, directly west of Roy Thomson Hall, in Toronto.

It Happened One Night is also available on DVD, through Sony Pictures.


  1. "This is not a film about Peter learning to love or Ellie learning to survive. Both have these talents in abundance, right from the start. They just haven’t been forced to use them. What it’s really about is letting go: learning to recognize those needless boundaries by which they limit themselves, then dropping them."
    - I really like your understanding of this film. It describes exactly what I feel about the film - I just couldn't find the right words. You must be a great scriptwriter.

  2. I'm not a scriptwriter, but thanks for the compliment. That's a tough job, I'm told.

  3. When I first saw this movie as a kid, I thought it was great. But i saw it again recently, and my taste had completely changed. Clark Gable is such a jerk in this film! Actually, he's a jerk in a lot of films, which is why I don't like him. I don't like that sort of bully type of guy that women are supposed to find sexy. I think it's silly. But I like your reading of this film as not being about his falling in love with her for no reason and her being tamed out of being such a sissy. You've definitely given me some food for thought - thank you.

  4. I absolutely love this movie - the scene where they hitchhike is hilarious. I've never thought of this movie as (too) old-fashioned. But like you said, if this movie were made today it would have been very different... I wish I could have gone to the screening at the park!

  5. I love this old movie, and not sure wether I like Rhett Butler or Peter Warne more? Clarke Gable is the man, and what a man he is!! Don't make them like that any more. Claudette Colbert does a fine job and together they compliment each other.