Morality and Relationships, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

The home of the classics, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) played Frank Capra‘s 1934, Best Picture Academy Award winner, It Happened One Night this past weekend.  This is, for some reason, a film I never think of when I consider Capra’s great films, and he made many of them, but I was reminded on Sunday of how shiny a gem this is.  One of his greatest.

It Happened One Night features a great cast at the top of their game.  And indeed, many agreed back in the day as it garnered Oscar wins for Best Leading Performances for both of its stars, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable (it’s my favorite of all his performances, by the way).  In addition, Frank Capra won Best Director and Robert Riskin won Best Writing, Adaptation for the very enjoyable screenplay.  There’s just noting wrong with this movie.

The first time I saw It Happened One Night was on American Movie Classics (now just AMC) when that network was dedicated to classic film in a purer fashion.  At that time films were introduced with backstories and trivia similar to what the fabulous, TCM still does today.  I still remember much of that introduction, which claimed the film was not an easy film to make.   Robert Montgomery who was the first pick to play the main male character hated the script and refused to do it.  Clark Gable also hated it and was forced to make the film by Louis B. Mayer.  Reportedly, when Clark Gable showed up for work on the first day, he said grimly, “Let’s get this over with.”  Also, the female role was a nightmare to cast as many of the stars of the time, including Myrna Loy and Constance Bennett, turned it down.  Claudette Colbert played the role of Ellie Andrews only after her salary was doubled and upon completion of filming she told friends that she had just completed the worst movie in the world.  As mentioned above, It Happened One Night then went on to sweep the Academy Awards.  So much for expert opinion.  Another tidbit I remember is that Bugs Bunny’s way of eating his carrots was based on the way Gable eats his carrots in this film.  According to trivia noted on IMDB, there are other ways this film influenced those classic, Looney Tunes shorts, “Friz Freleng‘s unpublished memoirs mention that this was one of his favorite films, and that it contains at least three things upon which the character “Bugs Bunny” was based: – The character Oscar Shapely’s (Roscoe Karns) personality – The aforementioned manner in which Peter Warne (Clark Gable) was eating carrots and talking quickly at the same time – An imaginary character mentioned once to frighten Oscar Shapely named “Bugs Dooley.” Other mentions of “Looney Tunes” characters from the film include Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly) and King Westley (Jameson Thomas) being the inspirations for Yosemite Sam and Pepé LePew, respectively.”

It Happened One Night is about a mis-matched couple centering on what makes them mis-matched as we see through a very interesting and entertaining journey.

Ellie Andrews (Colbert), is a spoiled heiress who leaves her rich father (Walter Connolly) and life and hides “amongst” average people in order not to draw attention to herself as she travels to New York and to her intended, a snooty type named, Westley (played by Jameson Thomas).  Ellie makes her journey by bus, by foot, by thumb and by jalopy and learns valuable lessons about life and love.

A film replete with charm, comedy and romance, It Happened One Night also shows, in its way and for a time the relationship between men and women, class distinctions and morality.  So, here is a bit of commentary on those subjects in relation to the film:

On men and women – the film says a lot – although certainly not unique for the mid-1930s.  Men are portrayed as superior to women here in some ways.  For instance, a woman is not shown to be able to survive on her own, the scene that comes immediately to mind is the one after Peter goes off to find the carrots after having made her bed of straws.  As soon as she calls out to him and he doesn’t answer, she’s a whimpering idiot afraid he may have left her alone to fend for herself.  She is portrayed throughout as the damsel in distress – when her clothes are wet, he gives her his scarf, he prepares her bed and tucks her into bed when the moment presents itself.  He also sets up the “wall of Jericho” to protect her “innocence,” which according to film lore, was an idea of Frank Capra’s as a result of Caludette Colbert refusing to undress in front of the camera.  Whatever the reason, as with so much else in classic film, it turned out to add oodles of fun to the story, characters and enhances several scenes, including the last shot in the film.

Anyway,  back to men and women – Peter even checks Ellie’s purse without asking for permission to see if she has any money and shows her how to properly dunk a donut.  He even carries her across the river lest her feet might get wet and slaps her across her “fanny” as if she were a child.  Don’t get me wrong, all of these scenes are fantastically entertaining and central to the story and their relationship.  I see these things as innocent and don’t take them to mean anything more than what we see in a movie of that time – one can easily say they are male chauvinistic in attitude and practice.  In a larger context yes, we can say that this depiction of women is negative – they cannot take care of themselves and are somewhat scatter brained, while men are protectors, the providers and the care-givers.  And let’s not overlook the fact that he is the ultimate gentleman – aside from the river carrying, he is angry she shows her leg in public to a another man while hitchhiking and he sends her back to bed when she begs him to be with her and professes her love for him.  But the film would not be what it is without all these depictions or attitudes.

On class distinctions – Placing a rich, spoiled brat (how Peter refers to Ellie throughout the film) on the road to travel as “common” people lends itself to plenty of situations where we can see the differences between the classes and many fun exchanges and situations.  For instance, when Ellie gets off the bus and asks the bus driver to wait for her she completely expects him to comply because she is used to being catered to.  Also, while she and Peter are experiencing difficulties during their travels with weather and lack of money, etc., we see the contrast to her father’s looking for her where everything is at his whim, including getting a plane to fly at a moment’s notice despite inclement weather.  Even the elements affect the rich and famous in very different ways than they do the poor.  When Elie wakes up at the bus depot room and goes out to shower she walks right up to the front of the line, completely ignoring the other women waiting there.  Again, she is not accustomed to waiting for anything.  The bus itself and the riders on it serve as a perfect example of how middle to lower class people often find entertainment in simple things like the sing-a-long of the trapeze song, one of my favorite scenes in the film.  The fact that they can all join in the song shows that they have a lot in common besides the actual bus ride.  These people seem perfectly comfortable in the cramped quarters of the bus and with having to fill their time with the small things that matter, all things that one wouldn’t expect the upper crust of society to be familiar or content with.  There are many other examples in this film to show the differences between the classes, including the fact that Peter is able to find food when he needs to (the carrots) but she resists eating them “raw” and dirty even though she’s starving.  There’s one other scene in particular that is poignant and worth mentioning in regard to class differences – after Ellie calls her father to come pick her up, he does so with police escort and chauffeur, meanwhile Peter is happily returning to her in his smoking, shaky jalopy and flat tire.  It’s so romantic, sweet and truthful – a huge step up for him from having to hitchhike – yet such a contrast to the police-escorted motorcade that whizzes by him.

On morality – I think this film portrays the middle (or lower) class as morally superior  in some ways.  That is, despite the fact the upper class always feels it is so – the more one looks down one’s nose at others, the more righteous you make them seem.    When Peter tells Ellie that he knows who she is and that she is on the lam, she quickly tries to bribe him.  This shows her, as the representative of the upper class, willing and able to buy anything.  Conversely, he shows great strength in refusing her bribe despite the fact he’s been fired and is quite broke.  In this instance, he is the one with the pride and the one who is principled as he just wants to write a good story.  Not to mention he is always the gentleman, never taking advantage of her sexually although he has plenty of opportunities.  He defends and ensures her virtue.  In the end we see again that he is beyond bribing by refusing the $10,000 reward from her father.  Instead he wants to get it off his chest that she is a spoiled brat and wants only to be repaid for his “troubles” in the amount of $39.60, the amount that would guarantee he didn’t play the fool.  Another interesting thing that happens between classes is shown by many facets of this film – that is the preconceived notions we all have about other classes or other people who are different from ourselves.  We often pre-judge people by the expectations we have, even before knowing anything concrete about them.  As such, he completely expects the rich, spoiled brat and so he sees her that way from the onset, and she completely expects that he is out for the money and so sees him that way.

Also worth noting on morality – Despite all instances described above, I’d like to mention one more very important message this movie has.  That is that moral superiority or attitude is in complete conjunction with need and circumstance.  For instance, because of the situations Ellie Andrews finds herself in throughout the story she is forced to do things she would never have considered doing in her “real” life.  She is still the same person but we see that need bears a heavy weight on people’s actions.  As examples of this we see her showing her leg to a complete stranger, staying in the room with a man she barely knows (she even mentions this is the first time she’d been alone with a man), rides in a stolen car and doesn’t even care it’s stolen, and eats the raw, dirty carrots after all.  In other words, it is very easy to make moral decisions when never faced with adversity or need.  This message is universal and still pertinent today.  As perspectives change, so may morality go down the tubes.  In accordance to how they are judged in the first place, anyway.

It Happened One Night is one of those films you can watch over and over again and is always entertaining.  The performances are wonderful as is the story.  But the film is also significant for having played an important role in Hollywood history, aside from being the first film to win the Oscar “grand slam” (IMDB).  It Happened has the distinction of giving Columbia Pictures the boost it needed to make the studio a true force and able to compete with the “big boys,”  The Big Five studios –  Paramount, MGM, Fox, Warner Bros. and RKO.  In brief – Columbia Pictures, who produced It Happened One Night, had had a few successes in the early 1930s  but “exhibitors still ranked it 6th in consistency of product.” (Gomery, 2005)  Just three years later, however, the studio would be at the top thanks to the 1935 Oscar sweep of It Happened One Night.

After that, the “Poverty Row studio earned its place among the best.”  (Heeley, 1999)  Throughout the rest of that decade the studio continued to gain prestige, mostly due to Capra’s collaboration, the studio’s prized, star director, again winning Oscars for his You Can’t Take it With You in 1938 and making an important contribution to what many consider the golden year for American movies, 1939, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra’s last film at Columbia).  So, in a real sense, Columbia Pictures’ rise happened with one movie, It Happened One Night.

If you haven’t seen this film, it’s a must.  Not only because it’s still very entertaining, but also because its “ego is absolutely colossal.”  It is credited for being the first screwball comedy and it remains one of the best over seven decades after it was made.  It Happened One Night, morality and relationships for the ages.

Behind the scenes:

Capra, Colbert and Gable
Capra, Gable and Colbert
Colbert, Gable and Capra
Capra, Colbert and Gable

Two more gorgeous theatrical posters:

8 thoughts

  1. “…it is very easy to make moral decisions when never faced with adversity or need.” So true! I like that you looked at the morality/relationships aspect of “It Happened One Night”. I feel like I’ve been to a film studies class after reading this post – thanks!

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