Film / It Happened One Night

Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is a hard-bitten reporter. He loses his job, but finds a ticket back in when he stumbles onto a runaway heiress, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who is determined to marry an airplane pilot named King Westley against her father's wishes. Peter meets Ellie on a cross-country night bus, and threatens to blow her cover unless she gives him the exclusive story about her escape. They hate each other at first; when they realize that they'll have to share a room, they invent the "Wall of Jericho," a blanket between their two beds to keep them apart. But they eventually fall in love...

This Romantic Comedy from 1934 was directed by Frank Capra. It was a low-budget movie that only became a huge success after it attracted a very strong word-of-mouth, and stayed in theaters for many years. It was the first comedy to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the first film to sweep all five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay) in the same year — a feat repeated only twice since, with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and then The Silence of the Lambs. It established Columbia Pictures as a major film company and established Frank Capra as a great director. Its title was the solution to the very first rebus on Concentration.

It's also notable for codifying the Screwball Comedy genre, in which a straight man-style character is chased, harassed, and eventually romantically captured by a Cloudcuckoolander (or related trope).

Random trivia: Bugs Bunny's love of carrots was intended as an obvious Shout-Out to Clark Gable's carrot chomping in this movie, but it quickly became the Stock Animal Diet of fictional rabbits everywhere. (In Real Life, carrots are unhealthy for rabbits in large amounts.)

Remade in 1956 as the musical film You Can't Run Away from It, starring Jack Lemmon and June Allyson.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Annoying fellow bus passenger Oscar Shapely hits on Ellie, so Peter starts pretending to be her husband.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Peter is kind of a jerk to Ellie in some scenes. She falls for him because of him being a bit of a jerk now and then - she likes someone who stands up to her and isn't impressed by her (father's) money.
  • The Alleged Car: Peter's car has a Plot-Driven Breakdown while pursuing Ellie's convoy. Not only does the car overheat, a tire goes flat as well.
  • Almost Kiss: Between Peter and Ellie in the hay.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love
    Ellie: I love you. Nothing else matters. We can run away. Everything will take care of itself. Please, Peter, I can't let you out of my life now. I couldn't live without you.
  • Beautiful Dreamer: Peter to Ellie on the bus: "I hated to wake you up. You look kind of pretty asleep."
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: They sure do snipe at each other a lot in the beginning.
  • Blackmail:
    • Peter wants the scoop on Ellie's flight to her husband; he threatens to call her father unless she gives it to him.
    • Also, Oscar Shapely wants to go 50/50 on a $5,000 reward he sees in the newspaper.
  • Brandishment Bluff: Part of Peter's tactic to scare off Shapely; he pretends to have a gun in his pocket, but it's just his finger.
  • Break-Up/Make-Up Scenario: One of the first in cinema, as Peter and Ellie angrily separate, only to be reunited at the end.
  • Brick Joke: When Peter first hangs the sheet between them as the 'Walls of Jericho', he alludes to the real walls being brought down with a trumpet. At the very end on their wedding night, the landlord tells his wife that the newlyweds asked for a trumpet. Cue trumpet blowing and the bed sheet hitting the floor.
  • Catch-Phrase: I'll write a book about it.
  • Clark Kenting: Peter and Ellie fool the detectives by pretending to be a low-class married couple. Somehow it works.
  • Crowd Song: Though the bus passengers' rendition of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" is believable.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ellie to Peter during his hitchhiking attempts.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Ellie's character development over the course of the movie.
  • Disposable Fiancé: King Westley. He is the reason why Ellie jumped from her father's yacht and is attempting to escape to New York. Of course, Ellie never really knew him. He was simply the first man she ever got alone with; she got engaged to him to stick it to her overprotective father. Once she spends her time with Peter and finds out what falling in love is actually like, she realizes there's no way she ever loved her fiancé.
  • Domestic Abuser: Peter pretends to abuse his "wife" to fool those who are looking for Ellie.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Peter does this when his wedding plans with Ellie fail.
  • Fairytale Wedding Dress: Ellie's is pretty sweet.
  • Fanservice: Clark Gable was seen without an undershirt in this film. There is an urban legend that this hurt undershirt sales.
  • Foreshadowing: Calling the dividing towel the "Wall of Jericho" foreshadows that the barriers between the couple will eventually fall away. The end includes a Call-Back to this very topic, where the couple request a trumpet and a towel is shown tossed into a corner.
  • Fully-Clothed Nudity: Ellie is completely covered in baggy pajamas, but she still demands Peter's robe before walking to the separate shower room at the motel.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: So blatant it hardly counts as sneaking. Peter and Ellie spend the movie hanging a towel (the Wall of Jericho) between the beds in their hotel/motel rooms for privacy. At the end, when they have been married, they retire to a hotel room, while the owner remarks to a friend how funny it is that the newlyweds requested a trumpet. Cut to a scene of a towel being thrown into the corner, with the sound of a trumpet being blown. Really suggestive for 1934. It helps that the movie was made right at the end of The Pre-Code Era.
  • Gilligan Cut: At the train station Peter insists that he wasn't interested in Ellie's money. Cut to the next scene where he sends off a telegram to his boss with the attempt to cash in on the big story that fell into his lap.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "Dyke's Auto Camp" might elicit a few snickers today.
  • Hitchhiker's Leg: Ellie picking up a ride by flashing her legs is the Trope Maker, and so old that many people don't even realize this is where it comes from.
  • I Have a Family: Peter gives Oscar Shapely a good scare with the kidnapping and "He Knows Too Much" plot, upon which the latter replies that he has a wife and kids.
  • Idiot Ball: Yes, Peter. Suggest they get out of the car and walk away from it while their lift is inside getting a bite to eat. Sure enough said lift assumes they've gone and drives off.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: Peter does this towards the end when meeting with Ellie's father:
    Mr. Andrews: Do you love my daughter?
    Peter: Any guy in love with your daughter should be examined.
    Mr. Andrews: Do you love her?
    Peter: A normal man couldn't live with her without going nutty.
    Mr. Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
    Peter: Yes! But don't hold that against me, I'm a little screwy myself!
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Peter, who is rude and crass but really does care about Ellie.
    • Also, Peter's Mean Boss seems to have a soft side to him. It's implied that when he reads Peter's story about Ellie, he puts two and two together and realises that Peter was genuinely in love with the girl.
  • Just for the Heli of It: The groom arrives at the society wedding in an autogyro (like a helicopter, but with an unpowered rotor), apparently for the PR value. The bride and her father are not favorably impressed:
    Mr. Andrews: Everything's set. Creating quite a furore, too. (pause) Great stunt King is going to pull.
    Ellie: Stunt?
    Mr. Andrews: Yeah, he's landing on the lawn in an autogyro.
    Ellie: (flatly) Yes, I heard.
    Mr. Andrews: Personally, I think it's silly, too.
    • Ellie and her father aren't the only ones to find it a bit silly:
      Peter: I'd like to get a load of that three-ring circus you're pulling. I wanna see what love looks like when it's triumphant. I haven't had a good laugh in a week.
  • King Incognito: Ellie, the rich society heiress trying to sneak back to New York on a bus.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Ellie in a different sense. She remarks she's never done anything on her own because she's always been with bodyguards.
    "I'd change places with a plumber's daughter any day."
  • Meet Cute: In the not so spacious backseat of a cross-country night bus.
  • My Own Private "I Do": Ellie and King Westley eloped before the start of the picture. After Ellie is reunited with her father, she decides to have a lavish, public ceremony as well.
  • Never Trust a Title: The story takes place over the course of at least three days. The title might well refer to that they fell in love one night along that trip.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: We don't get to see how Peter managed to outrun the car and overwhelm the driver who tried to get away with his luggage.
  • Over-the-Shoulder Carry: Peter walks across a shallow stream carrying Ellie over his shoulder to prevent her from falling in. However, Ellie thinks he is carrying her piggy-back and Peter slaps her on the butt for being foolish.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Ellie has run away because her father is trying to annul her marriage. Of course, this happens before she meets Clark Gable.
  • Phoney Call: Type C. Peter makes a drunk call to his editor who decides to fire him while on the phone and then hangs up in disgust. Peter, surrounded by other drunkards, pretends the conversation is going on and that his editor is begging him to stay on the job which then earns him the applause of his friends.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Peter is giving one to Ellie at the train station accusing her of being a Spoiled Brat who is used to buy her way out of all problems.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Peter makes Oscar Shapely shut up about his blackmailing by spinning a yarn about kidnapping Ellie and the probable shootout ahead.
    • Also, the way Peter and Ellie throw off the detectives by playing a quarreling couple.
  • Road Trip Plot: Probably the first ever "road movie".
  • Road Trip Romance: The Trope Maker.
  • Romance Ensues: Take a couple with a healthy dose of Unresolved Sexual Tension between them and send them on a road trip.
  • Romantic False Lead: Does anyone watch this movie and think that Ellie will choose King Westley?
  • Runaway Bride: One of the, if not the earliest example on film. Ellie races away from the altar and into the arms of Peter at the last moment.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: Ellie and Peter spend quite a bit of time discussing hitchhiking techniques and what does or does not constitute a piggy-back ride.
    • Gable has one of his own, where he complains that women "don't know how to dunk" (donuts into coffee). Nike used that scene for a shoe ad in the 1980s.
  • Shirtless Scene: Gable's scene caused a media sensation.
  • Sleep Cute: Early in the film, Ellie falls asleep on Peter's shoulder, while riding a bus.
  • Sleeping Single: Played straight—why would a supposedly married couple get separate beds?—but also used by Capra to set up the iconic "walls of Jericho".
  • Smithical Marriage: Peter and Ellie have to pretend to be married to get a room in a motel.
  • Sneaky Departure: Done by Peter for selfish reasons which puts Ellie in trouble the next morning when the landlords ask for their money.
  • Spinning Paper: We see several newspaper montages throughout the movie.
  • Spoiled Brat: Ellie is so spoiled that she can't grasp the concept of a budget, and tries to buy candy on the bus when she has $4 to her name.
  • There Is Only One Bed: One of the most famous scenes in the film is when our two leads much share a bedroom for the night. Peter hangs a towel across the room to give Ellie privacy, calling it the "Wall of Jericho." Of course, the Wall of Jericho is most famous for falling down, foreshadowing their eventual romance.
  • The Thirties: Two dollars to rent a motel room for the night.
    • An early scene has the bus stopping at a place that sells food and beverages....for 10 cents. There's also the fact that the ten dollars Peter had on him would have provided them with enough food to last the whole trip. Something practically unthinkable today.
  • Third-Act Misunderstanding: Played straight as an arrow, almost to the point of deconstruction. After Ellie confesses love to Peter, he leaves without telling her to make arrangements for them to get married (including trying to gather enough money to have her marriage annulled). Ellie misunderstands the situation, thinking he abandoned her and went to collect the reward money, and goes off to have a proper wedding with King Westley. Meanwhile, the newspaper headlines have Peter believe Ellie changed her mind about him and thus he refrains from making an effort to explain the situation and win her back. Fortunately, Ellie's father comes to save the day, even though Ellie brushes him off the first time he tries to set things right.
  • This Is My Side: That bedsheet been homaged/used dozens of times by everything from Neon Genesis Evangelion to A Very Brady Sequel.
  • Uptown Girl: A bit of It Was His Sled, right?
  • Well, Excuse Me, Princess!: Happens quite a bit between rough-mannered Peter and snooty Ellie.
  • Worst News Judgment Ever: Ellie's love life makes the top story on the front page of every newspaper. Evidently, not much else was going on in the world in 1934.
    • Considering that it was in the middle of The Great Depression, chances are that any more upbeat news would've been more than welcome.