It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

You know, I had you pegged right from the jump. Just a spoiled brat of a rich father. The only way you get anything is to buy it, isn’t it? You’re in a jam and all you can think of is your money. It never fails, does it? Ever hear of the word humility? No, you wouldn’t. I guess it would never occur to you to just say, ‘Please mister, I’m in trouble, will you help me?’

I watched this initially on DVD many years ago anf fully enjoyed it. I think, us young folks, who watch many films from decades ago have a certain problem feeling the context – as we are so removed from the year of release (1934… fifty years before I was even born). But we still have the stereotype ‘classic’ film expectation – a romance with facsinating leads and some quirky, comedic moments. It Happened One Night is one of those films that has all of that – and more. Clark Gable pre-Gone With The Wind and at a point whereby talkies were becoming the norm … this was a film that was always going to last for generations and now has the added element of historical-importance. LIke Casablanca and Citizen Kane – this could never be remade because the context and the actors is what makes the film so good. Both aspects could never be reproduced.
Fact is, when I rewatched this during a Claudette Colbert season at BFI Southbank, I took good friend Jenkins and Sarah… both told me post-viewing that it was a rubbish use of a Friday night. I think they are wrong.
A Road Journey – Without Many Cars
The film begins on a boat introducting Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) – a spoilt, stubborn little b**** who, to escape her family, jumps the ship and swims away. Defying her father and simply trying to escape the chains that bind her to marrying King Westley, she physically and emotionally jumps ship. This is interesting because throughout the film nearly every mode of transport is used. She rides on a boat, she swims, she rides on a bus, she hitches a ride on a car, a plane is featured – even an “auto-gyro” is used as King Westley touches down in the finale of the film
Gable and Colbert
Though Colbert’s Ellie Andrews is the protaganist, it is Clark Gables Peter Warner who makes this film. He is a cheeky, straight-talking journalist; a loveable “drunk” so they might say (again, a contextual facet the must stay in 1934). Is this a strange character for Gable? I think his charm is in his playfulness and smug, arrogant attitude. Somebody so smug is the last person we think Ellie needs, but alas it is inevitably that gradually, through the film, it progresses to show Ellie Andrews understand this Tom Cat’s ways. Warner feeds off others – his sinister plan to simply use Ellie Andrews to make a good story is his lie and so we see their similarities. Both arrogant, both liars who have underhand plans to simply use the other person to make their own plans. Though it is Colbert’s change that is important – Clark Gable doesn’t believe he needs to change.

Additionally, it is fascinating how even Ellie Andrews own Father dislikes King Westley – and so you see where Ellie got her rebellious ways from. The film speeds along, much like the transport used, and the characters gradually change – snowballing into an epic finale.

A Professional Finish

-Like many screwball love-stories, the end – again – places us in a position of dramatic irony as we understand how much Gable and Colbert love each other, whilst they both pretend that they don’t want to be together. As a false-close end to the story, we see Colbert to find Gable missing assuming he has left her to contact her Dad and collect a reward which was placed on her safe return, and as Gable drives back from his morning-drive – he see’s her leaving with all her fancy-car, assuming she couldn’t hack the working-mans life that Gable led. This misunderstanding of each other provides us with some fantastic, sparky dialogue as Warner, though clearly in love with her, will not admit it to himself following the misunderstanding … it takes her Father to prise it out of him, stating the infamous line in conversation with Ellie’s Father:

Alexander Andrews: Oh, er, do you mind if I ask you a question, frankly? Do you love my daughter?
Peter Warne: Any guy that’d fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
Alexander Andrews: Now that’s an evasion!
Peter Warne: She picked herself a perfect running mate – King Westley – the pill of the century! What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d done it yourself, long ago.
Alexander Andrews: Do you love her?
Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

This finale lets the audience know that they love each other as they run off together – only to meet up at the hotel they stayed at shortly before the misunderstanding and they reclaim what should have been their night of passion. The ‘walls of jericho’ that initially separated the two as they sleep – they joke at the end as the ‘walls of jericho’ fall, post-wedding, and we see the silhouette of the ‘walls’ fall.

Funny, touching, funny and incredibly romantic. It Happened One Night is one of the best films of all-time – and I think, personally, I prefer the relaxed and playful energy of It Happened One Night to the intensity and grand, epic scale of Gone With The Wind.


  1. “a loveable 'drunk' so they might say (again, a contextual facet the must stay in 1934)” – interesting. Because he was so innocuous, it was implied that he only drank when he was feeling low, but you're absolutely right. He's introduced as a terrible lush. Great review Simon!

  2. thanks – i think, when you watch 'golden oldies' you have to bear in mind two things- the context you are used to watching films within … and the context the film was watched within… and then you place judgement.

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