It Happened One Night
by Jonathan Walker
It Happened One Night is an enjoyable comedy, but beneath it all, Capra tells a story of people who need to learn to find happiness by treating each other as human beings and not as means to an end.
People all over struggled because of the Great Depression and the film industry suffered also. Between 1930 and 1933, the industry had seen a 25% drop in attendance and half of the major studios were on the verge of bankruptcy. 1934 proved to be the turn-around year, and It Happened One Night was its sleeper success. In a single year, downer movies like I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang gave way to the incomparable financial success of Shirley Temple. One may say that this turn was hinged on the success of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.
Heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) refuses to remain under her father’s thumb. He has protected her from life and now she wants to live. Indeed, she has gone off and eloped to the first man she has met on her own. But her father (Walter Connolly) won’t have it, and he has spirited Ellie away and kept her captive on his yacht. She breaks away and jumps overboard. If she can make it to her husband King Wesley (Jameson Thomas) in New York she’ll be forever free from her father, but he alerts the country with promise of a huge reward. Ellie has little experience taking care of herself and so the down-and-out newspaperman Peter Warne (Clark Gable) sees an opportunity to deliver her to her precious Wesley and deliver a wonderful story to the paper.
Throughout the film there are instances of people not seeing each other as people, but as means to ends. Ellie uses King to get away from her father. King uses Ellie to get at her father’s money. Peter Warne uses Ellie to revive his ailing journalism career. Oscar Shapely (Roscoe Karns) tries to use Ellie to satisfy his lust and then greed. The singing driver doesn’t see a newlywed couple, but a suitcase to steal. Ellie’s father uses Ellie in trying to control her. All would not be right with the world until this human commercialism ceased and people began to see each other for who they are.
Peter is very high-minded in his disdain over Ellie’s attempt to buy people off with money. He is disgusted that she hasn’t the decency to simply ask for help if she needs it. Conversely, when they are at the nadir of their fortunes Ellie was willing to accept a meal from the singing driver who picked them up while hitch hiking. Peter refuses and when the driver is gone, he confronts Ellie. Was she going to “gold dig that guy for a meal”? “Sure I was. No kidding, I’m hungry.” Ellie still saw people as a means to her own ends.
The irony is thick, though, because Peter uses Ellie just as commercially. He makes it very clear that he is not “interested” in her; his only interest is what her plight can do for his career. Granted, he does maintain the illusion that their relationship is mutually beneficial. He gets a story, she gets safely to New York. When she decides to reject the proposal, he makes it clear that he will capitalize on her anyway. If she runs, he will cash in on the reward money. He will get his story (he will use her). The only question is whether she will also benefit.
Peter has to be stripped of his intellectual superiority and Ellie must lose her upper-class superiority for them to finally connect as people. Only then they start to see each other as people, not means to an end. But it’s not all humor. This stripping away of their facades had serious moments as well, such as when Ellie succumbs to the raw carrot out of sheer hunger and when Warne works all night to find a way to propose to Ellie only to feel he has been manipulated. Even though they have come to admit their love for each other, their emotional journey isn’t over. Both Ellie and Peter feel that they have been used and then discarded. So, they revert back to their old selves. Peter’s only concern was that he had been “taken for a ride” and so meets with Ellie’s father to be reimbursed. While he does refuse the reward money, he also refuses to have done another some good. When she feels Peter has rejected her, Ellie’s only concern is to stop “running around” and settle down. “It doesn’t matter how or with whom.” To her, King is a means to an end.
Ellie’s father has not treated her daughter with the respect that he ought to, either. Instead of giving her the opportunity to grow and learn, he has insulated her from the world. Ellie is the example of what happens to people when they are not given their agency to make decisions. Not only do they rebel, but they find they are completely unable to make important decisions. Ellie could no more choose a proper husband (because she had never been given enough leeway to even talk with men) then she could make proper use of her limited funds (because she never had financial responsibility before). He learns, though. The first great act of allowing Ellie to make her decisions was when he held his peace at the formal wedding for Ellie and King. He gave her a way out and he would not interfere again, even if he did not agree with her decision.
Finding happiness is where Ellie wouldn’t jump in the surf simply to escape her father, but to live life to it’s fullest with Peter Warne. Love is a motivating influence. It makes us care for another because of her qualities and in spite of her weaknesses. As Peter makes clear to Ellie’s father, we can be crazy to. But, one of the most important things about love is that it can teach us how to treat each other-if we’re paying attention. We can both be who they need us to be and find contentment in who they are.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.