Sunday, April 25, 2010

It Happened One Night

"I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?" 
"YES! But don't hold that against me, I'm a little screwy myself!" --Peter Warne to Alexander Andrews upon receiving his $39.60, It Happened One Night, 1934

I find it much harder to write about a film I know and love.  And I do love this film.  The witty one-liners, the crazy plot stretches, and the overall sense of fun is something I’ve always loved about screwball comedies from the 1930s.  To all those who say romantic comedies aren’t real films of merit, watch this film.  Change your mind.

The Plot
Ellie Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert, is an heiress who has finally defied her father by eloping with a celebrity daredevil pilot, King Westley.  Her father interrupts right after the vows are exchanged and spirits her away to his yacht in Florida to talk some sense into her, but Ellie refuses all food and then dives into the ocean and swims to shore.  She grabs some clothes and money, and buys a bus ticket to New York and her new husband as her father’s men chase after her.

Peter and Ellie vie for the same bus seat

Peter Warne, played by Clark Gable, is a fast-talking reporter who has annoyed his editor one too many times with his tricks.  Desperately in search of a story, Peter boards a bus only to get into an altercation over a seat with spoiled Ellie, who while she has considerable spirit, is unable to function outside her usual pampered existence.  It doesn’t take long for Peter to guess her secret, and after Ellie’s head-in-the-clouds attitude causes her to lose her luggage and miss her bus, Peter appoints himself her protector until she gets to New York in order to get himself the “scoop of the century.”  He pretends to be her husband when another passenger, Shapely, starts harassing her.  She begins to trust him, though they continue to bicker.

Ellie falls asleep on the bus next to Peter

Peter berates Ellie for being fiscally irresponsible, and then purchases them a motel room when the bus stops for the night during a downpour.  He reminds her they must pretend to be husband and wife, as they haven’t the money for two rooms.  To assure her he’s not interested in her sexually, he erects a “Wall of Jericho” out of string and blankets, and then tells her to “join the Israelites” as he begins to take off his clothes to scare her away. 
The "Wall of Jericho"

As they eat breakfast in the morning, detectives from Ellie’s father enter their room, determined to search for her.  They play at being a squabbling pair of newlyweds so well that the detectives become uncomfortable and leave, causing the two to collapse in laughter.  On the bus again, Ellie and Peter are beginning to finally get along when suddenly the bus runs off the road.  A poor woman faints, leaving her young son so hysterical that Ellie impulsively gives him all their money so he may buy food.  Peter gets cornered by Shapely, who has realized Ellie’s identity as well and wants a cut of the reward money.  Peter manages scare away a suddenly terrified Shapely by convincing him that he is a gangster and that this is a kidnapping.  Peter grabs Ellie and they run off into the woods, making their way through fields and finally spending the night in a hay stack with only carrots to eat.  It is then that Ellie realizes how lost she would be without Peter, just as he realizes how he has begun to care for her.

Peter teaches Ellie to dunk doughnuts
The next morning, Peter and Ellie attempt to hitchhike the remaining distance to New York.  Peter, as usual, is an old pro and high-handedly lectures Ellie on hitchhiking.  But when Peter is unable to flag down a single car, Ellie decides to give it a try by hiking up her skirt and extending her leg.  The first car comes to a squealing stop and Ellie smugly gets into the car as Peter fumes.  Their driver is slightly insane, singing loud operatic airs the whole way.  When they stop for gas, Peter and Ellie get out to stretch their legs, and Peter apologizes for always lecturing Ellie.  Peter suddenly gets up and chases the car, the driver having driven off with all their belongings.  After subduing the driver, Peter and Ellie drive the car to a motel that Ellie insists on stopping at, even though they are mere hours away from New York.  Ellie has read a newspaper story claiming her father has joined forces with King, agreeing to the marriage in his worry to get his daughter back.  But Ellie is reluctant to leave Peter, and as they are readying for bed, Peter talks about what he wants for the future.  Ellie runs over to his side in tears, claiming that she loves him and wants that life too.  But Peter grimly tells Ellie to return to her side of the “wall.”  As she sleeps, Peter comes to watch her, realizing he loves her too.  Not wanting to propose without so much as a dollar, Peter gets in his car and drives to New York, offering his editor their story in exchange for the money to marry Ellie.  But the suspicious motel owner wakes Ellie after Peter leaves and kicks her out for having no money.  Ellie believes Peter has abandoned her and calls her father to come get her.
Attempting to hitchhike
Peter drives back just too late, seeing Ellie drive away with her father and husband.  He returns the money to his sympathetic editor and then gets drunk.  Ellie prepares unhappily for a fancy wedding ceremony, but finally breaks down in tears and admits the whole story to her father.  She realizes that she has never been a serious person, but Peter has made her want to take charge of her life.  But Peter has sent a letter to Ellie’s father requesting money, and Ellie puts him from her mind (or tries to).  Peter agrees to meet Ellie’s father the day of her wedding, and asks only for the money he has spent on Ellie, $39.60, rather than the $10,000 reward.  Ellie’s father asks if Peter loves Ellie, and after much prodding he finally admits he does.  As Ellie and her father walk down the aisle, he mentions what transpired with Peter, and says he only wants Ellie to be happy.  If Ellie changes her mind, her father has parked her car out front.  Right before she says “I do” Ellie runs away and jumps in her car.
Ellie is about to marry King
Much later, Ellie’s father manages to get her marriage annulled by paying off King with $100,000, claiming it to be the best money he has ever spent.  As he starts to get drunk he receives a telegram from Peter asking about the hold up, claiming that the “‘Walls of Jericho’ are beginning to topple.”  Ellie’s father sends a reply: “let ‘em topple.”  The last scene is of the bemused owners of a motel, discussing the strange requirements of a newlywed couple who is staying in one of their rooms (a trumpet, a blanket and string).  As we look at the outside of the room, someone plays a trumpet as apparently the “Walls of Jericho” fall, and the lights go out in the room.
Peter and Ellie bring down the "Wall"
The History
It Happened One Night was the first of only three movies to win the “grand slam” of Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay).  It is currently number #3 on AFI’s list of best romantic comedies of all time, and #47 on their list of the best movies of all time.  This film is also largely considered the first “screwball comedy.”  It granted Frank Capra legitimacy in the film industry and a long standing career, and pulled Columbia Pictures from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row.”  It was even the inspiration for several Loony Tunes characters, as the film was a personal favorite of creator Fritz Freleng.  And it was almost never made.

Ellie stops a car
Frank Capra could not get leads for his movie.  Myrna Loy turned it down because a recent “bus picture” had failed; Robert Montgomery turned it down because he thought it “the worst screenplay he ever read.”  Not to mention that Capra worked for Columbia Pictures on "Poverty Row," a degrading term that was given to studios that produced low-budget B-movies.  Claudette Colbert repeatedly turned Capra down until he finally promised to give her $50,000 (double her salary) and to shoot the film in only 4 weeks.  Clark Gable was loaned out by Louis B. Mayer without his consent, because he had been a “bad boy” who had asked for a raise and Mayer wanted “to spank him” by reminding him how lucky he was to be employed by MGM.  Gable showed up drunk for his first meeting with Capra and reportedly said as he arrived for his first day of shooting “let’s get this over with.”  Colbert proved difficult on set and sulky, refusing to pull her skirt up to stop a car.  However when a chorus girl was brought in to be her body double, an outraged Colbert yelled “that’s not my leg!” and did the scene herself.

Peter starts to take off his shirt

The film was a sleeper hit, a success with both the critics and the public. Legend has it that sales of men’s undershirts plummeted after Gable undressed in the first motel scene and revealed his lack of one.  Frank Capra was finally able to tearfully accept his Oscar, and the biggest Academy Awards after party occurred later that night at his house, where he finished a magnum of champagne and passed out on his front lawn clutching his award.  Clark Gable said he “never expected to win one of these.  There are too many good actors in this business.  But I feel as happy as a kid and a little foolish they picked me.”  He later gave the award to a child who admired it, saying that it was the honor of winning, not the statue that mattered.  Claudette Colbert had chosen not to attend and was waiting for a train in her traveling suit when she won.  A member of the Academy’s press committee, Leroy Johnston, hunted her down and dragged her back.  Colbert worried that she’d miss her train and that she wasn’t dressed.  Johnston yelled, “but it’s the Nobel Prize of motion pictures!”  Colbert came, and in her speech and again backstage thanked Capra for making all this possible.  Her award was given to her by another new star who had received a miniature Oscar of her own: six-year-old Shirley Temple.

Shirley Temple hands Claudette Colbert her Oscar

While It Happened One Night will live on in cinema as one of the best romantic comedies ever made, the 7th Academy Awards also left another legacy.  Bette Davis’s performance in Of Human Bondage was originally snubbed by the Academy.  The outpouring of anger over this in the film community was so overwhelming that the Academy quickly responded by allowing “write-in” ballots.  When Bette Davis still failed to win, accusations of ballot manipulation were made.  Bette Davis wrote in her autobiography that Jack Warner (her antagonistic studio head) had sent instructions that his personnel vote for anyone but her.  “Not since that decision in 1934," she wrote, "was so cavalier a verdict allowed to take place.  Price, Waterhouse was asked to step in the next year to count the votes, which they have done ever since.”  From 1935 up to present day, the firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers has been entrusted with counting the Academy ballots.  I hope you’re reading JC…

The Verdict?
About a year ago, I took a class called "Women in Film," where we read an article about the newest trend in romantic comedies, specifically Knocked Up, and how they differ from the screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s.  In the article, A Fine Romance, writer David Denby details the rise of "slacker-striver" comedies, with what he calls "the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow."  In these films, which have risen to popularity in the last decade, the man is an underachieving, pot-smoking, child-like slacker, while the woman is beautiful, successful, and straight-laced.  The man is the hero who needs to grow up and enter adulthood, while the woman is the vehicle to help him do that, though according to Denby she "doesn't have an idea in her head, and she's not the one who makes the jokes."  The story is about his journey much more than hers, and while she needs to relax a little, it is the man who must come full circle, usually by getting a job or finally being mature.  She unbends by doing something a little wacky.  Contrast this type of film (Big Daddy, Wedding Crashers, Knocked Up, Fever Pitch, Failure to Launch) with It Happened One Night and other 1930s romantic comedies.  Even attempt contrasting it with more recent movies like Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle, or Splash.  In a traditional romantic comedy, it is more likely that the man is the one who is straight-laced and successful, while it is the woman who is flighty, kooky, and more of a free spirit.  He needs to unbend and she needs to grow up, the direct opposite of the current trend.  They must both unbend and meet in the middle, where they can finally be together as equals.

As I sit here and watch Pretty Woman on TBS, I am increasingly disturbed by this trend that seems to be taking over our idea of what it means to be a successful couple. Not that I believe Julia Robert's prostitute is a model for an ideal relationship, but I wonder why it is so difficult to find a film now where the main characters are equals, and each shines even more brightly when the other is near.  In It Happened One Night,  Colbert and Gable bring out the best in each other's characters.  While Peter Warne is overbearing and cocky, Ellie's innate goodness and vulnerability make him soften and relax more.  He realizes that sometimes the best moments in life are the ones that spring up, unplanned and wild.  And after following Peter around, Ellie realizes that she can't always act impulsively and that there are definite consequences to her actions.  It isn't about her journey or his, but theirs together.  "I'm tired of running around in circles. He's right," claims Ellie at the end of the film, "that's what I've been doing. Ever since I can remember.  I've got to settle down."

I don't necessarily believe that female leads should always be  flighty heiresses and that male leads should be all buttoned-up, but I do believe that however they are portrayed they should be equals that meet in the middle.  I know it's possible; I've seen it in When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail, even Moonstruck.  When two characters are right for each other, there is a glow about them that ricochets off the language of a really good film.  You don't need special plot devices or flashy effects.  Good romantic comedies work because of human connection.  That's what this film has, which is why people 70-odd years later can still enjoy it and connect with it.  Why can't a film like this emerge now?  I'm not sure, and that scares me.  I'll keep waiting...
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