My husband is starting to enjoy classic films. As I write this he is sitting next to me laughing along to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, his first time watching the Marx Brothers. The other night I decided to show him IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT for two reasons. First, I wanted to watch my new Criterion Edition of the film. Second, I wanted to test my theory that a truly great classic film can be enjoyed by anyone (even if that person doesn’t think they like classic films). A good story is a good story and a great movie is a great movie. And if any film is both a good story and a great movie it is certainly IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.
On board his yacht in the waters of Florida, millionaire Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly) is trying to persuade his daughter Ellie (Claudette Colbert) to eat. She is pitching a fit, shouting at crew members, throwing things, and refusing all food that is sent to her cabin. The cause of her displeasure is her own father who, after discovering her hasty marriage to playboy aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas), has “kidnapped” her and taken her away on his yacht. He hopes that time apart from her new husband, a man whom he considers to be a fortune hunter, will give Ellie time to reconsider her actions. If that doesn’t work the annulment he has in the works should do the trick. Disgusted with her father’s continual attempts to control her life, Ellie bursts from the room and runs out onto the deck. Climbing over the rail she swan dives into the water and quickly swims off. Her father’s men hurry after her but cannot catch up to her, and she swims out of sight. Andrews sends word to his personal detectives to be on the lookout for Ellie, to keep an eye on all modes of transport going to New York (and back to King Westley).
In a Miami bus station an old woman buys a ticket for the night bus to New York. Two of Andrews’ detectives are watching nearby but this elderly woman doesn’t attract their interest. As she steps away from the counter the woman crosses the floor and hands her ticket to Ellie, who has been hiding nearby. Slipping past the detectives, Ellie boards the bus where she finds herself sitting next to a slightly drunk and newly fired newspaper man named Peter Warne (Clark Gable). The two take an instant dislike to each other, Ellie being offended by Peter’s rough way of speaking to and dealing with her, and Peter finding Ellie a spoiled brat. However, at the next stop on the route Ellie’s bag is stolen while she smokes a cigarette and Peter takes off after the thief. Unable to catch him, Peter returns empty-handed to Ellie who reveals that all her money is now gone and she has only four dollars left. Peter suggests that she wire her father for more money or report the theft to the bus driver, but she refuses raising his suspicions. His theory of Ellie’s true identity is confirmed when she leaves the bus at the morning rest stop, assuming that the driver will hold the bus to wait for her. Ellie returns to the station twenty minutes late to discover that the bus has left her behind and the next bus to New York won’t leave until eight o’clock that evening. But Ellie is not alone as she soon discovers that Peter has also stayed behind. He hands her a newspaper with her photograph on the front page. Ellie offers to pay him once she gets back to New York, to give him any amount of money to keep her secret. Peter is offended that Ellie thinks that she can just buy people off when he was willing to help her if she would have just asked. The two argue and then part ways until boarding the bus to New York that evening.
Onboard the bus Ellie finds herself sitting next to one Mr. Shapely, who is more than slightly interested in Ellie. Believe you me, Mr. Shapely would love to have Ellie as his something on the side and isn’t shy about letting her know. Ellie tries to get him to leave her alone but he persists until Peter stands up and requests to change seats with Mr. Shapley. When asked why Peter replies that he would like to sit next to his wife, much to Mr. Shapely and Ellie’s surprise. Ellie tries to thank Peter but he dismisses her saying that the other man’s voice was getting on his nerves. The bus continues on for a time but soon is stopped by a washed out bridge. Peter manages to secure lodging for himself and for Ellie, sharing a cabin at a nearby lodge. Because money is tight and room fees are high, Peter has them sharing one cabin and posing as a married couple. Ellie enters the cabin reluctantly as Peter readies the beds. She wonders why he is going through so much trouble to help her get back to New York. Peter tells her that all he wants in return for helping her are the exclusive rights to her story, which he hopes will get him his job back. If she does not go along with his plan then he will call her father and reveal her location. She reluctantly agrees and Peter returns to his bedtime preparations. He strings a rope between the beds and hangs a blanket, calling it “The Walls of Jericho”.
The next morning the two prepare to leave for New York, taking in a quick breakfast complete with lessons in doughnut dunking etiquette, when they hear people approaching the cabin. Ellie recognizes the voices as those of two of her father’s detectives. Realizing they are about to be caught, Peter and Ellie spring into action now behaving like a married couple having an argument. Caught off guard by the yelling and crying in the cabin the two detectives leave quickly before taking a closer look at the bride. Unbeknownst to them Andrews has offered a $10,000 reward in exchange for information regarding his daughter. A new picture is published in the newspapers, along with the reward offer, and it is this picture that catches the eye of one Mr. Shapley. Back onboard Peter and Ellie continue on their bus ride, the trip becoming more pleasant as musicians take out their instruments to play “The Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”. Other passengers join in, taking a verse here and there, and even Peter and Ellie find themselves singing along. Everyone gets caught up in the song, including the driver who lets go of the wheel to applaud the song. The bus swerves off the road and promptly gets stuck in the mud. A young boy cries out to his mother, who has fainted, and while Ellie tends to his mother tells Peter of how neither one has eaten since boarding the bus as they spent all their money on the tickets. Peter guilty looks at his money and is about to put it back into his pocket when Ellie returns, and after comforting the boy hands him the money to buy food with. Now penniless, Peter and Ellie must be careful while traveling. While the driver tries to figure out their next move, Mr. Shapley approaches Peter and asks to speak with him about Ellie Andrews. Peter quickly leads him away from the bus where Mr. Shapley offers to keep his mouth shut in exchange for half of the $10,000 reward. Peter pretends that he is part of a gang who have kidnapped Ellie for a large ransom and threatens Mr. Shapley in order to keep him quiet. Thoroughly convinced, Mr. Shapley takes off running into the woods (and he might be running still) while Peter hurries back to the bus to retrieve Ellie. Worried that Mr. Shapley might still go to the police or that someone else might recognize Ellie, Peter believes that it is better to continue on foot. The two are forced to spend the night in a field, sleeping in haystacks. As the night passes Peter’s mood darkens, but Ellie has begun to see Peter in a new light and as the night deepens her eyes stay locked on his sleeping form nearby.
After walking for the better part of the day, Ellie asks when the hitching part of “hitch hiking” starts. Peter extolls the virtues of proper technique when thumbing a ride and takes his place at the side of the road. But after several cars drive past him, Ellie asks for a chance to try her luck. Not even using her thumb, Ellie flags down a car and soon the two of them are passengers of a jovial man who seems to have a knack for putting anything into song. Peter is in a sour mood, but this soon turns to anger when the man driving them attempts to abandon them and take off with their belongings. Peter chases after him leaving Ellie behind, only to return sometime later driving the very car that had left them. It seems their roadside savior was in fact a car thief, making a living by picking up hitch-hikers and then taking off with their belongings. Ellie tends to Peter who is slightly battered from his fight with the man, which ended with Peter tying him to a tree. Meanwhile in New York, Andrews has resigned himself to Ellie’s marriage in order to get her to return. Westley publishes an appeal to Ellie in the newspapers, telling her that all is forgiven, which she sees but hides from Peter. The pair is now just three hours away from New York but Ellie insists that they spend one more night at a lodge. That night across the walls of Jericho, Peter tells Ellie about his dreams in life which include moving far from the bustle of the modern world, to a simple life on an island in the Pacific he once saw. He hopes to one day find a girl who would go with him to that sort of life. But suddenly Peter stops talking because the walls have been breached, and Ellie is standing in front of him. She confesses her love for him and pleads with him to take her away with him, to take her to his island.
This is the original romantic comedy and it is just SO good! I hadn’t seen it for a few years and it is even better than what I remembered. My husband said that this was a “sweet movie” and it is. It is also astonishingly well done. It is a simple story but it is just done so well that it becomes something greater. I loved every moment of this film and could not imagine anyone other than Claudette Colbert or Clark Gable being in it. The Criterion Edition looks gorgeous, and I can’t wait to dig into the extra features that are included on the disc.
It is so surprising that at the time it was made really no one in the industry, aside from Frank Capra, liked the film or thought it would do well. Claudette Colbert apparently hated making the film, and once it was complete told a friend that she had just finished making “the worst picture”. Clark Gable came to set on the first day saying “Let’s get this over with”. But this would go on to sweep all the major categories at the Oscars in 1935, the first time that had ever happened, and would also grow in popularity and respect as the years went on. According to Frank Capra, it was not until the film started to make its way out to the theaters in smaller towns in rural America that the box office returns began to increase. It was the people in local towns and small movie theaters who helped make this film a success, going to see the film and then taking their friends and family to see it as well. And it is fitting that it is those people who had such an impact on the outcome of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, because it is those people who Frank Capra seemed to have in mind when he made it. Whenever I watch a Frank Capra film I always feel a common thread running through them, this feeling that people can and should be decent, hard-working, honest and true. I always have a sense of wanting to be something better and more honorable after watching a Frank Capra film, and this is no different. Though perhaps not as lofty as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON or MEET JOHN DOE, this film shows us that we can be kind to each other and that there is nothing so satisfying as dunking a doughnut or riding piggyback, if they are done honestly and without airs.