It Happened One Night, by Albert W. Vogt III

One of the fun things about reviewing all of the movies on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time is that it forces me to watch older pictures.  Like anyone else, I can be a prisoner to my generation.  What this means cinematically is that I tend to favor examples made after 1980.  That leaves the better part of a century’s worth of moviemaking in jeopardy of being ignored.  When I started The Legionnaire, I intended only to cover new releases.  When theaters were closed due to COVID, I pivoted.  Now, the mission, which is an admittedly daunting one, is to review every motion picture ever made.  Still, the ones made in my lifetime have a bit more familiarity to them.  What I am finding out about their ancestors is that they are just as timeless as any other.  Today’s entry, It Happened One Night (1934), number forty-six in AFI’s rankings, is no exception.

One thing that becomes evident early on in It Happened One Night is that Ellen “Ellie” Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled brat.  She is arguing with her father, the immensely wealthy financier Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly), over her recent elopement with the debonair King Westley (Jameson Thomas).  Alexander wants it annulled immediately, but Ellie is sick of being told what to do.  Instead, she literally jumps ship from their yacht off the coast of Miami, Florida, and swims to freedom.  Eventually, she makes her way to the bus stop, having bought a ticket to New York by pawning her father’s watch.  She hopes to get there inconspicuously and reunited with King.  In the bus terminal lobby carrying on an inebriated argument with his boss and editor, Joe Gordon (Charles C. Wilson), is Peter Warne (Clark Gable).  Joe says that his favorite reporter (that would be Peter) is fired and hangs up the phone.  He plays it off before his other colleagues gathered around him before boarding his transport to New York City.  Of course, it is the same one being used by Ellie.  Their first impression of one another is not a favorable one, and Peter sizes up Ellie for being the privileged woman that she is.  Nonetheless, he looks out for her during the early part of their trip, despite her protests.  Additionally, they form an agreement whereby he agrees to get her to New York and keep her out of her father’s grip in exchange for her exclusive story.  In this service, he goes after a person who steals her luggage, and later returns her wallet to her after she leaves it on her seat.  He also pretends to be her husband when she is accosted by Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), a fellow passenger who takes an unwanted interest in her.  This is when he learns the reason for her furtiveness.  Alexander has sent out people searching for her between Miami and New York, and Ellie is trying to evade them.  This is made less easy by the large cash reward he is offering for her return.  The news makes front page headlines, with Ellie’s picture accompanying, something Oscar notices.  Once more, Peter steps in, convincing Oscar that he is part of a violent mob when the fast-talking Oscar suggests they split the reward money.  Oscar walks off into the night, which is just as well as their bus has become stuck in the mud.  The headlines also suggests that Ellie and Peter should keep a low profile, too, and they decide to hitchhike.  When the person who picks them up attempts to make off with their luggage, Peter manages to catch up and now they have a car.  Again, trying to remain incognito, they stay in inexpensive motor lodgings.  To keep some modicum of privacy, he puts up a line bisecting the room and drapes a blanket over it.  The care that he has shown her convinces her that she is now in love with him, but he is hesitant considering he has no job or money.  It is evident that he loves her too, though, and he slips out in the middle of the night to make the final leg of their journey to New York alone.  Once there, he sells his story to his former boss, takes the money, and begins the trek back to where he left her. Yet, Ellie awakens to an empty room and believes Peter has abandoned her.  Making matters worse is the owners of the establishment suspect foul play with Ellie and Peter and call the police.  There is nothing left for her to do but to admit to her identity and allow her father to come get her.  Peter passes the veritable motorcade and sees through the window of a car Ellie resting on Alexander’s shoulder with King alongside.  Hence, he makes the assumption that she has given up on him.  News of Ellie’s reemergence gets out and Joe is forced to go with a different story.  Peter tries to return the money, but Joe refuses out of pity for a saddened Peter.  Meanwhile, Alexander insists on a church wedding, but can see that Ellie is not happy.  She admits that she loves Peter, but there is bitterness at him for apparently leaving her.  He offers to find Peter, but Ellie refuses.  As luck would have it, Peter comes on the day of the wedding to collect the reward that had been offered for Ellie’s safe return.  Instead of the exorbitant amount, which Alexander is willing to pay, all he asks is for a comparatively paltry sum to recoup his expenses.  Peter also angrily admits that he still loves Ellie.  This is enough for Alexander, who manages to plant the seed in his daughter head, leading to her running from the altar to get into Peter’s car.  We close with the couple off in a car park in Michigan together, and Peter anxiously wiring Alexander wondering if Ellie’s annulment has been approved.

The contents of the telegram at the end of It Happened One Night could suggest that some impropriety is occurring.  I will choose to think otherwise given the lengths to which Ellie and Peter go to keep their privacy while traveling between Miami and New York.  Peter’s behavior speaks to how a Catholic gentleman should behave.  These days, when you use the word “gentleman,” it conjures images of masculine behavior that, at the same time, denigrates women.  It is linked to a traditional mode of interaction between men and women that supposedly says that women are the weaker sex.  In this logic, men need to be the protector.  There is some of this in the film, particularly with Peter’s concerns over Ellie traveling by herself.  Where it is different, and matches more with what the Faith would tell you about roles, is in Ellie protesting that she can take care of herself.  As a single woman, she should be able to make her own way, and the Church would agree.  At the same time, she also is apparently called to marriage.  In the covenant that is the vocation of marriage, men and women have different roles to fulfill.  It has nothing to do with who is smarter or stronger, or any comparisons of any kind.  They are just different.  One of the duties of a husband to a wife, and vice versa, is to accentuate those attributes in one another.  While Ellie and Peter are not married, they seem to compliment the aspects of the other that make them who they are.  Since this seems to be how God intends, is it any wonder that they end up falling in love?

Before watching It Happened One Night, I would not have thought of Clark Gable in a comedic role.  Of course, the one that he is most known for is as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939).  If you do not have four hours to spare watching a spoiled brat learn how to make do with less, then watch It Happened One Night.  It is just as good.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s