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Film / It Happened One Night

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It Happened One Night is a 1934 film directed by Frank Capra.

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 film 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:

  • The '30s: 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.
  • Abhorrent Admirer: Annoying fellow bus passenger Oscar Shapeley hits on Ellie, so Peter starts pretending to be her husband.
  • Ace Pilot: King Westley is described as one of the best pilots in the country.
  • 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: When Peter and Ellie run out of money and resort to sleeping in a field, Peter makes up a bed of straw for Ellie and "tucks her in" by draping his coat over her, ending with their faces very close for a long beat. He stops himself.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Ellie talks Peter into telling her about his ideal woman, and he waxes poetic about a South Pacific beach and how he'd take her there to lie on the sand and watch the stars. Ellie crosses the Wall of Jericho to tell him that's exactly what she wants, too.
    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.
    • Oscar Shapeley recognizes Ellie's picture in the paper as that pretty girl he was hitting on on the bus. He offers to go 50/50 on the $10,000 reward with Peter, threatening to turn them in for the whole amount otherwise.
  • Be Gone Bribe: At the end of the film Andrew's pays King Westley $100,000 so he will not contest the annulment of his marriage to Ellie.
  • Brandishment Bluff: Part of Peter's tactic to scare off Shapeley; 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 blanket 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 blanket hitting the floor.
  • Catchphrase: I'll write a book about it.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Peter and Shapeley both flash this several times in regards to Ellie.
  • Clark Kenting: Peter and Ellie fool the detectives by pretending to be a low-class married couple. He fluffs her hair out of its bob, she looks away as much as possible, and their conversation descends into an "argument" that causes the detectives to leave in embarrassment.
  • Comically Small Demand: Peter presents Ellie's father with an itemized list of expenses he incurred bringing her back to New York, totaling... $39.60.
    Alexander: You want $39.60 in addition to the $10,000?
    Peter: Who said anything about $10,000?
  • Cool Plane: King Westley arrives at his wedding in a Kellet K-2 Autogyro.
  • Creator Cameo: Director Frank Capra sings the third verse of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze."
  • Crowd Song: To pass the time, several bus passengers pull out guitars for a rendition of "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." The whole bus joins in to sing the chorus (including Ellie after the second verse).
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ellie to Peter during his hitchhiking attempts.
    Peter: Just keep your eye on that thumb.
    [sticks out his thumb to hitch a ride, the car wizzes past]
    Ellie: Still got my eye on the thumb.
    Peter: Something must have happened. I'll try number 2.
    Ellie: Well, wake me up when you get to 100.
  • 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 along 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 Abuse: 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 is seen without an undershirt in this film. There is an urban legend that this hurt undershirt sales.
  • Flat Character: King Westley doesn't have very many scenes and we don't learn that much about him. He's more of an obstacle that keeps Peter and Ellie from being together than he is a character in his own right.
  • Foreshadowing: Calling the dividing blanket 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 the blanket is shown tossed onto the floor.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Gaussian Girl: Ellie is shown in soft focus when she crosses the Wall of Jericho to make her Anguished Declaration of Love.
  • Gold Digger: King Westley is marrying Ellie for her wealth. Played with a twist: When Ellie leaves him at the altar her father pays him $100,000note  to not contest the annulment. So even though he fails in his attempt to marry Ellie, he still walks away enriched by the experience.
  • 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 Shapeley 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 (leaving his luggage) and walk away from it while their lift is inside a hamburger joint. Sure enough said lift drives off with their belongings.
  • 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 ought to have his head examined.
    Mr. Andrews: Do you love her?
    Peter: A normal human being couldn't live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She's my idea of nothing!
    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. When Peter returns the $1,000 he was paid for the story, drunk and morose, his boss slips him some money and tells him to come back when he's sober to talk about getting his job back.
  • Jump Cut: A noticeable editing flub at the end of Peter's legendary Shirtless Scene. Ellie starts walking away, but then there's a cut back to her standing, then she walks away again.
  • 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 furor, 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.
  • Keep the Reward: During the Third-Act Misunderstanding, Peter corresponds with Ellie's father regarding a "financial matter." Ellie and her father naturally assume he wants the $10,000 promised for her return, and Ellie retains enough regard for him to tell her father he deserves it. Peter only asks for enough money to cover the cost of the trip—he feels he was "taken for a ride" and doesn't think it's fair to pay for it on top of that.
  • 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.
    Ellie: I'd change places with a plumber's daughter any day.
  • Love Triangle: Ellie is traveling across country to be reunited with her groom, King Westley. Along the way she meets and falls in love with Peter.
  • Meet Cute: In the not so spacious backseat of a cross-country night bus.
  • Mood Whiplash: Just after the bus passengers go through a fun song with a live band and everyone joining in the chorus, suddenly the bus hits a dip in the road filled with mud, grinding the ride to a halt, and moments later a boy cries out that his mother has just gone unconscious, saying that it must be stress from realizing they are flat broke. Add to that, Oscar Shapely has just seen Ellie's picture in the latest paper, and confronts Peter with a proposal to split the reward, only for Peter to pull him away and whip up a story involving gangs and an assassination, threatening Shapely's family should he blab about it.
  • 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.
  • Non-Answer: When Andrews flat-out asks Peter if he loves Ellie, he keeps giving evasive, snarky replies ("A guy that'd fall in love with your daughter should have his head examined!"), and Andrews calls him out on it.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Andrews is this to King Westley; he doesn't care at all for his future son in law. Justified in the fact that King is a playboy looking for a payday.
  • 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.
    Ellie: How did you get the car?
    Peter: I gave him a black eye for it. And had to tie him to a tree.
  • 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 earns him the applause of his friends.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Peter gives one to Ellie at the bus station, accusing her of being a Spoiled Brat who is used to buying her way out of all her problems.
  • Refuge in Audacity:
    • Peter makes Oscar Shapeley shut up about his blackmailing by spinning a yarn about being a gangster who's kidnapping Ellie, and the probable shootout ahead.
    • Peter and Ellie throw off the detectives by playing a quarreling couple, culminating in her bursting into sobs while he shouts abuse at her. They dissolve into laughter afterward.
  • Road Trip Plot: Probably the first ever "road movie", as Peter and Ellie go on a complicated trip from Florida to New York.
  • Road Trip Romance: The Trope Maker. Peter as the hard-bitten reporter, escorting high society dame Ellie back home for a big fat reward. In the end he leaves Ellie in the night to get money so they can marry. Ellie thinks Peter has left for good and goes back on her own. Peter forgoes the reward in favor of the trip’s simple expenses, and admits he loves Ellie, and the walls of Jericho fall.
  • 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?
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • "The Walls of Jericho" are the most frequently used symbol in the film. By the end of the film, all three of the movie's central characters (Ellie, Peter, and Andrews) are in on the joke, which Peter is the first to devise when he puts a blanket up to separate his side of the cabin from Ellie's during their first night together. The actual Battle of Jericho, from the biblical Book of Joshua, is very disturbing. But Peter makes light of it when he says that the blanket he's stringing up will be indestructible, like the Walls of Jericho. He's probably unaware of the irony that, in the end, these walls were brought down by a lot of noise. Trumpet-blasts are traditionally credited with this feat of destruction, and that's why in the film the last thing we hear about is Peter's request for a trumpet. The wall that separates Peter and Ellie — and that seals his promise not to violate her space or her body — finally comes down. Which means these two are going to have at it to their hearts' content.
    • The first thing we learn in the film is that Ellie's "on hunger strike," and from that point, the subject of food keeps coming up throughout the film: donuts, chocolates, and carrots, not to mention the constant references to hunger. Ellie comes from high society, which in this movie is kind of an empty place. Sure, it's fun and flashy, but it doesn't have much substance. In a way, Ellie is "starving" for something real—and she finds it in Peter. It's no accident that her turning point comes when she finally decides to eat raw carrots. They're not fancy, but they're actually nutritious, and they come from the earth. In a way, Ellie is returning to her human roots. On another note, appetite for food is often associated, in literature and film, with the another kind of appetite (one related to sex). And the film can also be seen as a story about Ellie's quest to find—and ultimately to fulfill—her desire. She's never force-fed (even though her father threatens to force-feed her); in fact, Ellie's given space to find what it is she craves—and though that may not be carrots, exactly, it turns out to have a lot in common with the workaday carrot.
  • 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—with her father's subtle encouragement (he has the getaway car ready).
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Mr. Andrews is a very wealthy man who believes there isn't a problem he can't solve with money.
  • 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.
    • Peter 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.
  • Shameless Self-Promoter: King Westley loves the spotlight. He flies himself to his own wedding in an autogyro for the publicity.
  • 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: After Ellie's Anguished Declaration of Love, Peter sneaks away to New York while she's sleeping to write and sell their story for enough money to get married, hoping to get back and surprise her before she wakes up. He fails, and Ellie thinks he's abandoned her.
  • Spell My Name with an S: The credits and the screenplay both put two E's in Oscar Shapeley's last name, but it understandably often gets spelled the same as the word "shapely" (Shapeley making a pun on his own name and "shapely" doesn't help)
  • Spinning Paper: We see several newspaper montages throughout the movie, though it avoids the spinning type.
  • Spoiled Brat: Ellie is so spoiled that she can't grasp the concept of a budget. She 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 blanket 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.
  • 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: The "Wall of Jericho" blanket has 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?
  • Verbal Tic: Shapeley saying "believe you me" and calling everyone "Doc".
  • Well, Excuse Me, Princess!: Happens quite a bit between rough-mannered Peter and snooty Ellie.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"??: King Westley. His first name is in fact "King", it's used in the wedding vows.
  • 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.