Note: this post modified from a previously published post
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
The modern romantic comedy has its roots in this film, but after seventy years has not improved on the effortless charm of It Happened One Night. Propelled forward by the theory that opposites attract and various romantic misunderstandings, this is not simply one of the best comedies ever made, but one of the best films ever made. Well acted, tightly plotted, and sure-footed in its direction, it offers everything you could want in a cinematic experience.
Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is an heiress whose father has just annulled her hasty marriage to a fortune hunter. Tired of having her father dictate her life, she runs away (by jumping off a yacht) and goes on the run, determined to teach her father a lesson. On a bus she meets Peter Warne (Clarke Gable), a reporter who agrees to help her reunite with her would-be husband in exchange for an exclusive. Various things happen on the way to New York, including an overnight stay in a cabin divided down the middle by a sheet Peter refers to as the Walls of Jericho, an attempt at hitchhiking (probably the most famous scene of the film), a night spent sleeping under the stars, and a misunderstanding which results in Ellie thinking that Peter has abandoned her and agreeing to go home, then passing him on the road as he’s on his way back to her.
The chemistry between Gable and Colbert is great, with him playing your average Joe, and her playing a pampered princess. The film is at its best when it’s just the two of them onscreen, whether it’s the aforementioned hitchhiking scene (“I’ve proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb,” she tells him after stopping traffic by showing a little leg), the scene where Peter shows Ellie how a man undresses, or when he schools her in how to dunk a donut (“Where’d you learn to dunk? Finishing school?”). The best is the sequence when they camp out under the stars and she wakes up alone and thinks he’s gone off without her. He returns, revealing that he went looking for food because he knew she was hungry. In this scene we see them begin to realize that they’re in love with each other (although we realize it long before), even though neither is prepared to inform the other of this fact. Ellie still thinks Peter sees her as a ditzy, spoiled brat, and Peter still thinks Ellie believes she’s too good for him. After Ellie finally does admit to Peter that she loves him, he sneaks out while she’s sleeping to go to New York and sell his exclusive story in order to get enough money to propose to her when he returns. However, when he returns to where he left Ellie, he realizes too late that his car has passed her father’s limousine – with her in it – on the way home. Mr. Andrews has agreed to let Ellie marry the fortune hunter, but is hopeful that he can prevent the marriage when he learns that she’s fallen in love with someone else. Mr. Andrews appeals to Peter to stop the wedding, but Peter refuses.
Peter: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty. She’s my idea of nothing.
Andrews: 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.
Gable and Colbert are wonderful here, each providing depth to characters who could easily have been little more than cardboard cut-outs or caricatures. In the camping under the stars sequence in particular both actors are able to convey the complexities of what their characters feel for each other, both the push and the pull. As a director, Frank Capra succeeds by seeming to sit back and allow the action to take place. Nothing in the film feels forced; it all flows so easily. Compare this film to other romantic comedies, where it can occasionally seem like a monumental effort must be made in order to get the lovers together. Here it just seems so natural, the plot moved forward with a lightness of touch that is amazing when you consider how precisely structured the film actually is. It begins and ends with Ellie eloping and with her running away (in the first instance, she runs after eloping, in the second she runs away to elope), and the ending recreates the Walls of Jericho scene, which takes place at the campground which previously kicked Ellie and Peter out because they weren’t married. There’s a lot of repetition/recreation in the story.
There’s so much to love about this movie. It’s smart and funny and perfectly cast. It succeeds because it allows you to get to know Ellie and Peter as people, rather than just as vehicles for comedy, and it’s one of the film’s great strengths that the comedic moments between Peter and Ellie arise naturally out of their different experiences, rather than being forced on them for the convenience of the script. There’s a reason why seventy-six years after its release this film still seems so fresh: it’s just that good.