AFI Countdown Challenge #35: It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night, as I mentioned last time, was the first of three films to win the five big Oscars.  That said, it was also a film that it looks like no one wanted to be in.  It took a long time to find a lead actress before they finally got to Claudette Colbert, and she had a bad experience previously working with director Frank Capra.  She only took the role on the condition that she be paid double and the filming be done in the short amount of time of four weeks.  As for Clark Gable, he was under contract with a different studio and legend has it he was forced to make the film as a punishment.

Capra apparently said Colbert was difficult during filming, but ultimately concluded her performance was worth it.

The film opens with a wealthy man’s yacht.  Banker Alexander Andrews’ daughter Ellie (Colbert) is on a hunger strike until she is allowed to live with the fortune hunter she may or may not have married.  Her father tries in vain to get her to give up the guy and eat something.  Instead, she ducks around him and dives overboard.  Her father picks up a phone and calls for a detective agency.  They need to find his daughter…again.

It’s that kind of film.

Meanwhile, reporter Peter Warne (Gable) gets in an argument over the phone with his editor.  The editor fires him, but he covers for himself by continuing the conversation after his boss has hung up on him so that the many reporters gathered around the phone booth will think that Peter quit in defiance and wasn’t fired for being a dick of a reporter.

It’s also that kind of film.

And yes, Ellie and Peter soon meet as they both board a bus for New York.  Initially they hate each other, but soon Peter recognizes Ellie for who she is.  There’s a nationwide hunt for her, and he can use a story.  He doesn’t care much for the promised reward, just the story.  Ellie just wants to get to her husband/fiance.  As it is, the two realize they can both get what they want if they work together, particularly to avoid the various forces hunting for Ellie on behalf of her father.  If the detectives find Ellie first, she can’t get to her betrothed and Peter doesn’t get the story that could get him his job back.

Will they eventually fall in love, say over the course of a single night as suggested by the title?

Um, sort of.

See, the film doesn’t take place over the course of a single night.  There’s at least three or four.  I suspect the actual falling in love part of their journey could take a single night, but let’s face it, it’s a romantic comedy.  Of course two people who have only know each other for less than a week are soul mates!  It Happened One Night didn’t invent that trope.  But what it does do is show two clever people find a mutual interest in wordplay and deception to guide the two to their wedding night.

Oh yes, there’s a lot of deception.  Both Peter and Ellie are quick thinkers, prone to creating personas to avoid getting caught.  Peter shows a little more talent, becoming a mob heavy when a man proposes sharing the reward with him, but Ellie shows just as much spirit when they have to pose as a bickering married couple.

Besides, Ellie proves, in the film’s most famous scene, she can hitchhike with the best of them.  This comes after Peter explains in great detail how he was a master of getting a ride with his thumb.

Ultimately, Ellie dumps her fiance and runs away from her own wedding to be with Peter to her father’s approval.  All Peter wanted was to be reimbursed for the money he spent, and after some pressing, yes, he confesses he is in love with Ellie.  And yes, Ellie is in love with him, and the Walls of Jericho come down as the film closes.

It Happened One Night is just a lighthearted breeze with a lot of fun wordplay and slapstick romance.  There’s a musical interlude, a runaway bride, and everyone outside of the main couple is out looking for a pair that don’t want to be found.  Heck, Gable’s lack of an undershirt actually allegedly affected sales of those shirts nationwide.

Truth be told, a plot this light doesn’t really lead to much discussion.  It’s a great screwball comedy, a nice romance, and the two leads actually have some chemistry.  It was pre-Hays Code, so they could get away with a little more, as seen with the Walls of Jericho coming down, but it was still the 30s, so there were some decency standards.  And even if none of the actors really wanted to be there, well, they made a hell of a good film all the same.

Besides, Gable’s wisecracking reporter, a guy quick to invent a new persona as needed to use against idiots, and his carrot chomping midway through the film may have helped inspire one of my favorite characters in the form of Bugs Bunny.  I’m glad of that much at least.

NEXT UP:  I’m not sure how this didn’t end up on my all-time favorites list, but we’re going to one of those films that many people automatically think of when they think of classic movies:  1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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