Stars: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale, Arthur Hoyt, Blanche Friderici | Screenplay by Robert Riskin | Directed by Frank Capra
Spoiled but spirited socialite Ellie (Claudette Colbert) flees her privileged life commandeered by her overbearing father and ends up sharing a bus ride across America with cynical, hard-drinking newspaperman Peter (Clark Gable). If you think you know how that story ends you’re probably right, but audiences in 1934 wouldn’t have seen the inevitable romantic and comedic scenes coming; we may be used to the road-trip, odd-couple romance by now (it’s practically a subgenre all by itself), but It Happened One Night was the first of its kind.
Following a row aboard her father’s boat, Ellie dives into the harbour and enlists the help of an older woman so that she can buy a Greyhound bus ticket cross-country to Miami. The motivation behind this rash course of action is the upcoming arranged marriage between Ellie and an eligible suitor of her dad’s choosing. Being a wilful and indepent-ish sort, she doesn’t take kindly to having her life mapped out for her by men. After all, you can’t bind two people together against their will and expect everything to turn out peachy keen – unless you’re Frank Capra, of course.
Though Ellie travels under a false name it doesn’t take Peter, a drunk and a louse, maybe, but one with a nose for a story, long to uncover her true identity and cut her a deal: he’ll help her make it across the country in one piece (she’s already had her luggage stolen and a lech make amorous advances upon her by this point) and he gets to write the story for his paper. It’s a good thing she came along; Peter had just been fired, though to all the boys huddled around the phone booth it looked like he quit in a firestorm of indignation.
Many scenes in It Happened One Night rely on a cast of bit players to create a sense of instant community. Whether it’s the women lining up to shower in an overnight camp or the whole bus alternating verses on an Irish folk song, Colbert and Gable aren’t just moving through the country but with their countrymen.
Conceived and filmed during The Great Depression, Capra’s typical empathy for the working class, the disenfranchised and the naïve shine through here and puts Ellie and Peter’s twin plights in sharp perspective. Neither is likely to want for economic comfort, but their decision to travel incognito puts them on the same level as everyone else, which leads Ellie to some uncomfortable realisations about her own privilege.
These lessons are imparted by a somewhat heavy-handed Gable (though thankfully not literally), who chides Colbert for her constant naïveté and unwillingness to do as he says. “This is the 1930s,” one repeats to oneself as another casual comment about beating spouses is made without recourse. “That’s just the way things were.” Which is as may be, but it doesn’t make things any less uncomfortable.
The problem with It Happened One Night is that, charming though many of Colbert and Gable’s scenes are, the underlying subtext of a child-like woman running away from one father only to be enraptured by another are distinctly, well, gross. The subconscious implications aren’t helped by thoughts of Gable’s off-screen crimes against women, no matter how much his famous smirk tries to convince the audience that he’s a lovable rogue.
However, for all its icky gender politics, It Happened One Night still stands up as a prime example of the romantic comedy, and the debts owed to its screenplay, direction and performances by countless other films throughout the 20th century cannot be understated. Certainly one to revisit if you haven’t before – but perhaps with a pinch of salt at the ready.
It Happened One Night is now available in the UK on Blu-ray from Criterion.