Reviewing It Happened One Night was a long time in coming, but as I always say, what more can be said about a movie already universally praised? I love It Happened One Night, but my praise isn’t effusive. However, it’s cited as one of the best comedies for a reason, so let’s talk about a few of them.
Spoiled heiress Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is determined to get married to aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas), whether her father approves or not. In her mad dash to get to King, she ends up on a bus where she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), desperate for a story. The two band together, hoping to achieve their own ends in the process, but end up falling in love.
It Happened One Night is such a staple of screwball comedy it represents the genre as a whole, probably one of the reasons it’s hard figuring out something original to say about it. The scene of Claudette Colbert’s hitch-hiking is shown in countless clip shows charting the progression of comedy throughout the ages, but that’s because it remains effective today, as does the rest of the humor here. It isn’t situational, but universal, with regards to relationships. It Happened One Night is timeless; its comedic impact hasn’t faded. Peter Warne and Ellen Andrews are opposites drawn together by circumstance leading to a hodgepodge of romantic entanglements you’re eager to see unfold despite already knowing the formula and where things end up. The movie is pure screwball, but it’s also a bit of a 1930s sex comedy with the issues inherent in sharing hotel rooms throughout their travels.
The famed “Walls of Jericho” witness a lot during Ellen and Peter’s adventures. Director Frank Capra was the master of utilizing diagetic sound, especially rain, in order to convey pervasive sexual tension, and the first night Peter and Ellen spend together is a great example highlighting the film’s sex comedy overtones. After Peter play-strips in front of Ellen, already a saucy moment in and of itself, she goes over to her own side of the room to change, throwing her clothes over the wall/clothesline. As Peter nervously looks over at her night things, the rain pounding on the window panes is the only sound heard. The pressure of his beating heart, perhaps?
There are also a few clever nods at the horrors of domesticity, strange considering by story’s end the movie asserts it. Ellen’s father sics private detectives on her, leading them to the couple at a hotel. Of course, the two act as a married couple in order to get away, culminating in a hilarious exchange anyone in a relationship recognizes. It’s one of those “so funny because it’s true” moments, and I’ve included it above for your laughing pleasure. It’s a sequence that feels improvised, but I’m sure was heavily scripted; the high-tone of voice Gable and Colbert put on normalizes them, while Ellen’s declaration of Peter being drunk and Peter screaming “Quit bawlin'” is a moment where the audience says “They’re just like us…or at least they know people like us.”
Frank Capra’s films provide a populist view of the time, and It Happened One Night isn’t often recognized for its social commentary compared to later movies like Sullivan’s Travels (or Capra’s other feature, American Madness) which placed the social drama front and center. Ellen slowly realizes she isn’t the center of the universe, best exemplified as she goes to take a shower and bypasses the long line of people. A later scene shows her giving her final bit of money to a little boy whose mother’s passed out on the bus from lack of food. Claudette Colbert’s subtly transitions from put-together heiress to down-home all-American slowly, helped by her less than glamorous looks (keep note of how she looks at the beginning vs. the end), and she isn’t as cold or off-putting as other actresses like Jean Harlow, who wouldn’t have been believable.
The problem is, and this could be my 21st-century lens, how much of a pawn is Ellen in the movie? This isn’t her story, despite the narrative revolving around her, because the audience identifies more with all-American Clark Gable who’s stuck dealing with her snooty antics and acclimates her to the real world; nor is it the story of their partnership because Ellen is entirely helpless without Peter, seen when the two spend a night in a hayfield and Peter wanders away for a brief minute. When the two are at the hotel earlier Ellen attempts to explain the harsh realities of her life, her father controls her every move and sends her out with bodyguards. The problem is she’s intent on moving from one male, who restrains her freedom, to another male who hopefully indulges her need for freedom. Really, she’s simply transferring from man to man, remaining unable to handle the real world on her own. To me, she ends up lost in her own movie, mainly because she lacks Clark Gable’s charm.
This is Clark’s movie through and through, and you don’t see me complaining. He’s got so much self-confidence and charm, to the point he feels confident enough drunkenly calling up his boss and quitting his job. Later on, he plays sexual mind games with Ellen while simultaneously taking care of her and treating her like his child; I say the latter line with a hint of sarcasm. I talked about Robert Young playing the single man learning about fatherhood in Journey for Margaret, but Clark Gable’s Peter Warne also fits into that mold, from the way he calls Ellen “brat,” right down to forcing her to eat her vegetables (the carrots he finds in the field and carries with him).
My talk about the flaws with Colbert’s character aren’t indicative of my thoughts overall. It Happened One Night is my favorite Frank Capra movie (please don’t say “What about It’s a Wonderful Life” because you won’t like my answer) and remains a timeless classic. The themes involving the Great Depression and the “struggles” of the wealthy is dated now, but Clark Gable’s effortless charisma and repulsion against Ellen Andrews’ way of life endears you to him, and the film as a whole. And have I mentioned he takes his shirt off plummeting t-shirts sales until Marlon Brando made them cool again in A Streetcar Named Desire? If you haven’t seen it yet, what kind of film fan are you?!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.