© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
It Happened One Night was a landmark film. A great commercial and critical success, it was the first film to sweep the five most important Academy Awards: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress. It is still one of only three films (and the only comedy) ever to do so. It is historically important for other reasons as well. For one thing, the film was a big enough success that it made its small studio, Columbia Pictures, into a major studio. It made its journeyman director, Frank Capra, into a major Hollywood figure, and solidified the status of male lead Clark Gable (who had risen to stardom only two years earlier, with Red Dust)as one of the leading stars in Hollywood. Meanwhile, it launched a whole new film genre, the screwball comedy, that would be a huge force in defining the terms of the romantic comedy in general.
It Happened One Night also appeared at a crucial juncture in Hollywood history in that it appeared only a few months before the film industry instituted full enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, which (among other things) placed severe limits on the representation of any material related to sex and sexuality. Indeed, there are a number of motifs in It Happened One Night that might not have been possible had the film been made only a few months later. In retrospect, these motifs—such as the “Walls of Jericho” gag that runs through most of the film, almost seem designed as teasing jests at the expense of the impending Code.
The timing of its release, meanwhile, suggests one reason why It Happened One Night is such a distinctive screwball comedy: it was released before full enforcement of the Code, while all other classic screwball comedies were released during the period of full Code enforcement. On the other hand, the screwball formula has proved quite a durable one, and films that clearly participate in the screwball tradition continue to be produced to this day, long after the demise of the Code.
Meanwhile, the Code went into enforcement when it did for a reason—because America was in the throes of some major cultural crises. In addition to the obvious crisis brought about by the Depression, the modernizing impulse of a newly emergent consumer capitalism (one of the major driving forces behind the development of the film industry in the first place) was coming into direct conflict with certain conservative indigenous religious traditions (many derived from the New England Puritans, but many also derived from the Catholic Church, which played a major role in early attempts to censor the film industry).
In her book-length study of the film, Linda Mizejewski notes,
“Without dispute, It Happened One Night is the boilerplate for Hollywood’s favorite way of constructing the heterosexual couple. Its formula of the quarreling duo, spunky heroine, romantic triangle, and class/cultural conflict continues to dominate the genre of romantic comedy, easily making the transition into the twenty-first century” (2). However, Mizejewski goes on to note that the film addresses crucial topics related to gender and sexuality that go well beyond the world of film:
“Yet the big topic of It Happened One Night is no less than the way we imagine and fantasize marriage and heterosexuality, a topic that still sweeps us up in its emotional impact. The romantic comedy has emerged as one of our primary cultural stories of heterosexuality, and the ongoing influence of It Happened One Night speaks to the weight of this particular picturing of the couple: cantankerous, willful, needful of lessons about compromise and love” (3).
The issues that Mizejewskihighlights here are certainly the ones with which It Happened One Night is most obviously and directly concerned. However, the film also addresses a number of other issues. For example, many aspects of It Happened One Night directly address the fact that it was released at a time when the United States was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. The film, in fact, deals quite extensively with economic issues—and in particular with the issues of class and class difference. One of the principal reasons for tensions between the male and female leads of the film has to do with the fact that they come from very different economic worlds and have thus had very different experiences and have different understandings of the world, especially where economics is concerned. At the same time, the fact that the romantic relationship at the heart of the film is a mixed-class one means that the film’s treatment of gender issues is inseparable from its treatment of class issues.
It Happened One Night begins off the coast of Florida aboard a posh luxury yacht, itself a highly charged location, given that many people who saw the film during its first run in theaters would have been struggling mightily just to keep roofs over their heads or food on their tables. Then, to add even more charge to this situation, the first line of dialogue spoken in the film—by a man who will turn out to be Alexander Andrews (Walter Connelly), the ultra-wealthy owner of the yacht—is “Hunger strike, eh?” We then learn that the man’s daughter, spoiled heiress Ellen “Ellie” Andrews (Claudette Colbert), is refusing to eat as a protest against her father’s intervention in her love life. He has, we will learn, literally had her kidnapped from the altar, where she had just married famous aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas), and is now holding her to try to pressure her into having the marriage annulled. When Andrews is told by one of his toadies that they have been unable to get Ellie to eat, he angrily responds, “Well, why don’t you jam it down her throat!”
Andrews here is speaking out of frustration and does not literally mean that the man should jam food down his daughter’s throat. One should probably also keep in mind that audiences in 1934, some of whom might themselves have been hungry, might likely have little sympathy with a rich girl who is refusing the fancy food that is being offered to her out of pique. In fact, he immediately goes to the cabin where she is being held prisoner to try to talk her into eating voluntarily. Nevertheless, this whole opening sequence suggests that Andrews (who is, by the way, clearly meant to be seen as a positive character) occupies a very patriarchal position in which he feels justified in attempting to force his daughter to end a marriage of which he does not approve. (Ellie’s mother is nowhere to be seen in the film, by the way, and is perhaps deceased; nor does Ellie appear to have siblings.) As the scene proceeds, Andrews makes clear his plan to have Ellie’s marriage annulled, though it also quickly becomes clear that Ellie is a strong-willed young woman. He’s accustomed to getting his way. Indeed, Andrews appears to be correct when he concludes that Ellie only married Westley as a way to defy her father and break free of his domination. But she is formidable in her own right—as can be seen from the fact that the servants who bring two trays of food to her cabin are clearly terrified of her. Then, when she overturns the two trays, her father angrily slaps her; he is clearly unable to brook such a staunch refusal to accept his authority.
This slap shifts audience sympathy to Ellie, who then escapes from the cabin and leaps off of the yacht into the water. Andrews sends his minions after her, but she evades them and makes it to shore. “Of course she got away,” Andrews declares to the underling who reports her escape. “She’s too smart for you.” One begins to see here a glimmer of pride; though his daughter’s willfulness causes him considerable consternation, it is also a sign that she has some of his own stubborn character, a fact that he seems secretly to find pleasing. In fact, the film ultimately will make quite clear its intention to portray Andrews as a loving father who is only looking out for his daughter’s welfare. It is unable, however, entirely to obscure the signs that he is a domineering patriarch who simply insists on having his own way, signs that seem a bit more alarming in the twenty-first century than they might have to audiences in 1934. Indeed, once Ellie escapes, his immediate response is to hire a detective agency to track down and recapture her. His cable to the agency reads “Ellen Andrews has escaped again,” suggesting that there is a family history of such events.
Ellie’s escape sets in motion the main plot of the film, in which she attempts to make her way back to New York to rejoin her new husband and begin their married life together. The problem is that she loses most of her money early in her journey and (more importantly) she has lived her entire life inside such a protected bubble of privilege that she has little understanding of how the world really works or how one goes about negotiating a path through the real world without a cadre of servants and advisors (and a wad of cash) to pave the way. She’s smart, though, and she manages to get a ticket for a bus headed north from Miami by paying an old woman to buy it for her, knowing that her father’s detectives will probably be watching the ticket counter. but after that she is pretty much clueless about what to do next. Luckily for her, she soon meets good-hearted (but hard-drinking) newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who is also headed north in search of opportunity, having just been fired from his job with a New York newspaper. The street-savvy Peter takes Ellie under his wing and agrees to help her get back to New York—in return for the exclusive rights to the story of her escape from her father and return to her husband.
The developing relationship between Ellie and Peter as they travel cross-country includes numerous classic elements of the screwball comedy, including its focus on a central couple who experience strong sexual attraction but who try to deny this attraction because they appear completely mismatched due to their great differences in background, experience, and social class. Perhaps predictably, the two protagonists gradually learn to understand each other better and even (somewhat grudgingly) fall in love, as would also come to be typical of the screwball comedy—though they also encounter the requisite obstacles and misunderstandings along the way.
Both Peter and Ellie are classic character types, not only of the screwball comedy, but of classic Hollywood film in general. Newspaper reporters like Peter were frequently featured in the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s, and they were frequently portrayed, as is Peter, as being tough, anti-authoritarian, working-class types. Movie reporters of the day were typically heavy drinkers, but were also typically virtuous men of the people, dedicated to getting the truth into print and unintimidated by power. Ellie, meanwhile, is a classic poor little rich girl, spoiled and headstrong, but basically well-meaning. Such characters are also typically smart and beautiful, but (like Ellie) unaccustomed to having to fend for themselves in the world of ordinary people.
When Ellie first encounters Peter on the bus, he is in the midst of a jesting encounter in which he gets the best of the bus driver (played by Ward Bond, a Hollywood stalwart who would go on to appear in more than 200 films up to his death in 1960). Peter’s credentials as a subverter of authority are thus quickly established, and the other passengers on the bus generally cheer his victory. For her part, however, Ellie is not much impressed, especially after Peter, having vanquished the bus driver, goes to take his seat, only to find that it has been occupied by Ellie. “Excuse me, lady,” he says. “But that upon which you sit is mine.” The taken-aback look on Ellie’s face clearly indicates that the possible sexual entendre in Peter’s statement is not lost on her. Meanwhile, this statement announces the way in which such double entendres would become a crucial strategy of screwball comedy dialogue, allowing the characters in the films to make potentially racy statements without overtly violating the terms of the Code. One even suspects that such dialogue was often added as a joke at the expense of the Code censors, just to see if it could get by them.
In this case, Peter and Ellie are ultimately able to share the seat, suggesting dual ownership of that upon which she had been sitting and foreshadowing the marriage of Peter and Ellie by the end of the film. In the meantime, Peter gives Ellie a chiding slap on the ass midway through the film, indicating that he is feeling more and more propriety in regard to that part of her anatomy. And she remains wary of him even after he tries to come to her aid when a thief makes off with her suitcase (and most of her money). She does, however, sit beside him on the bus, given that no other suitable seats are available. And then, exhausted, she even falls asleep with her head on his shoulder during the next leg of the trip. Peter, though, continues to look out for her, despite the fact that she is rather rude to him—ostensibly because his reporter’s eye has spotted a potential story that might be key to his professional comeback. But it is also clear by this point that he is personally attracted to her as well. It is thus no surprise when he stays behind with her at their next stop in Jacksonville when she misses the bus after a breakfast stop, having assumed (given her typical experience of life) that the bus would wait for her. He even salvages her bus ticket, which she left behind on the bus. “Remember me?” he announces himself, then follows with another double entendre. “I’m the fellow you slept on last night.” The ongoing sexual suggestiveness of Peter’s dialogue might simply be an aspect of his sexist personal style, but it also seems a rather obvious indication of his romantic interest in Ellie, even though he ostensibly offers this reminder just to embarrass her. He then announces that he knows who she is and warns her that King Westley is a “phony.”
He eventually agrees to help her evade her father’s agents and get back to her husband. In the meantime, he comes to her aid again when the obnoxious Oscar Shapely (Roscoe Karns), a fast-talking bus passenger, sits next to her and tries to hit on her, only taking encouragement from her attempts to rebuff him. “When a cold mama gets hot, boy how she sizzles,” he declares. Peter, sitting across the aisle, quickly claims to be Ellie’s husband and asks Shapely to switch seats with him so that he can sit next to his “wife.” Ellie, for once, even seems grateful.
Peter next intercedes when Ellie tries to buy a box of chocolates on the bus, reminding her that she has already spent all but $1.60 of the $4.00 she had the night before, which means that she can hardly afford the chocolates. Much to her chagrin, he insists on taking charge of her finances from this point forward, suggesting that he is beginning to assume the patriarchal role previously played by her father. Soon afterward, their bus is stopped due to a washed-out bridge, and Peter and Ellie have to take refuge for the night, amid a driving rain, in an auto park. Peter again poses as Ellie’s husband so that they can share a room and save their meager financial resources; it is here that Peter first suggests the expedient of the “Walls of Jericho” to keep things on the up-and-up.
It is also here that Peter first confesses to Ellie that he is helping her so that he can get her story and make his comeback as a newspaperman. Ellie, despite claiming to find him an annoyance, is clearly crestfallen, indicating that she had hoped that his interest in her was personal (and suggesting that she has an interest in him). Peter then drives her to her side of the “wall” by beginning to undress in front of her, reaching a bare-chested state that would have been more problematic had the Code been fully in force when the film was released. Nevertheless, Peter’s striptease explicitly introduces an element of sexual energy into the film that had previously only been hinted at. Then, in a later scene on a different night (thus belying the title of the film), Gable bares his chest again, while Ellie also undresses—though a bit more primly (and certainly on the opposite side of the Walls of Jericho). Nevertheless, even Ellie’s demure striptease would have pushed the boundaries of the Code had it been fully in force.
Immediately after this moment Ellie and Peter, still separated by the Walls of Jericho, begin to discuss love. For once, Peter lets down his gruff exterior and begins to wax poetic. Shots of Ellie’s face as he describes an idyllic Pacific island he would like to share with his loved one make clear that she is now in love with Peter and would like to be the one to share that island with him. She then comes around the hanging blanket and throws herself onto the side of Peter’s bed, begging him to take her to that island with him. In a moment that would surely have been frowned upon by the Code censors just a few months later, she declares her love as he lies in bed and she leans against him, her hand on his chest. They seem about to kiss, but instead they settle for a rather demure embrace. Peter then sends her back to her own bed, where she lies crying, while now it is the look of concern on his face that shows the feelings he is developing for her. They will, of course, wind up together, but not until a further series of misunderstandings throws more obstacles in their path.
This being a romantic comedy, it will end in their marriage. But It Happened One Night is not just the story of a personal relationship. It is a story with a number of political repercussions as well, not all of them specifically related to the politics of gender. For example, Frank Capra is a director who is famed for his populist sentiments, and those sentiments are in full view in this film in its presentation of Peter Warne as a down-to-earth man of the people. This aspect of Peter’s character is seen perhaps most clearly in a scene in which he is happily driving in a car (on his way back to propose to Ellie) and has to stop while a train passes through a crossing. In a good mood, Peter interacts amiable with both the crossing guard and the train’s engineer, but also exchanges friendly waves with a bum riding atop one of the train cars, suggesting his ability to get along with all manner of common folk (while also acknowledging the Depression context of the film, when such bums were very common). Capra’s populism can also be seen in the depiction of the solidarity shown among the passengers on the busses ridden by Peter and Ellie. This aspect of the film is especially clear in an extended sequence just short of the film’s midpoint in which an impromptu performance by some musicians aboard the bus leads to a group sing in which virtually every passenger participates in the singing of an improvised version of the well-known nineteenth-century song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”—the same song that Peter is singing to himself in the car when he stops for that train. The bus thus becomes a utopian space in which everyone is an equal member of a joyous and sharing community, even as the nefarious Shapely still provides a discordant presence.
Meanwhile, Peter’s status as a populist hero is continually reinforced in the film through a demonstration of his superior knowledge of life in the world of common people, a knowledge that the wealthy Ellie lacks. There is, however, one interesting moment in the film in which Ellie seemingly turns the tables. Here, Peter delivers a discourse on techniques of thumbing rides while hitchhiking, an activity in which he has apparently participated many times. Ellie seems to be listening with amusement, then becomes even more amused when Peter’s attempt to demonstrate his prowess comes up short, with a number of cars passing by him without stopping. Ellie then demonstrates her own technique by pulling up her skirt to bare an outstretched leg to the next car that comes by, bringing it to a screeching halt. This moment and the moment in which Peter first removes his shirt are perhaps the best-known and most widely discussed moments in the entire film, clearly indicating the centrality of sexual attraction to the story of the film.
Ellie and Peter climb into the backseat of the car, having secured a ride. Ellie might not understand life on the road, but she does seem to understand certain aspects of her sexual power. And she’s not above gloating about her victory, at which Peter responds, grumpily and somewhat misogynistically, “Why didn’t you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars!” Peter here seems upset because Ellie’s use of her body to attract the driver challenges his growing sense of ownership of that body, a fact that also helps to explain the surprising vehemence with which he threatens to punch her when she later suggests that she might try to charm the driver into buying her some food. Unfortunately, the driver of the car is the unscrupulous sort, and he ends up robbing them by taking off with Peter’s suitcase, which contains most of their remaining resources. Ellie’s use of her sexual allure thus ultimately leads to negative consequences, suggesting that she is likely to get in trouble whenever she attempts to act on her own, without masculine guidance. Indeed, this whole incident ends in an essentially full restoration of Peter’s masculine power when he chases down the thief, not only retrieving his own suitcase but also commandeering the man’s car—apparently after emerging victorious in a fistfight.
The treachery of the driver who picks up Ellie and Peter (another sign of how tough life is on the road in 1934) sounds a discordant note amid the film’s vision of populist solidarity, and there are other signs of discord as well. Even the scene of singing on the bus is interrupted when the distracted bus driver runs off the road into a ditch; then a woman passenger faints from hunger and receives no help or support from anyone aboard the bus except Peter and Ellie, the latter of whom not only revives the woman but gives her and her son money so they can buy food. Peter seems displeased at the generous gesture, given their own meager resources, and the overall implication seems to be that Ellie can be so generous because she is unable to understand how badly she and Peter need that money for themselves. In any case, the abrupt ending to the populist utopia aboard the bus provides a stark reminder of just how difficult economic conditions really were in 1934.
Meanwhile, Peter’s restoration of his patriarchal power by vanquishing the larcenous driver is only temporary, and he will still have to negotiate several other crises—most of them financial—before finally landing Ellie in marriage. After Peter and Ellie have clearly developed a mutual love, he decides to propose to her but also decides that he cannot do so unless he has some financial resources at his command, complementing his physical attractiveness with fiscal viability. So he stealthily slips off to New York to try to cut a deal with his former editor to get his job back, as well as a substantial advance on his current story. Peter’s sense that he cannot propose without money addresses the notion that the man should have a certain amount of economic power in a marriage, but here there is clearly much more at stake than gender: Peter seems particularly disempowered with regard to Ellie because of their class difference and because her financial resources are so much greater than his. This class difference also helps to explain the consistency with which Peter continues to try to establish authority over Ellie, as when he repeatedly refers to her as “Brat,” essentially reducing her to the status of a child.
From this point, the film moves inexorably toward its romantic conclusion. Yet it also consists, from this point forward, of one economic transaction after another, and the fact that Peter plans to marry Ellie with resources gained by exploiting his relationship with her introduces certain unresolved tensions into the film. Indeed, at first glance it might seem surprising that a romantic comedy would pivot so crucially on economics. However, the film ultimately privileges the romantic over the economic, establishing that true love can only exist in a zone from which the economic has been excluded. After Peter disappears to New York to see his editor, Ellie thinks that he has abandoned her and has no personal interest in her. So she decides to abandon their relationship and return to Westley, a decision that is facilitated by the fact that Westley has now made peace with her father. But then she confesses to her father that she loves Peter. Mr. Andrews then reveals that Peter has an upcoming appointment with him to discuss a financial matter, which both he and Ellie assume means that he is coming to collect the reward Andrews had offered for the safe return of his daughter. When it subsequently turns out that Peter, now feeling rebuffed, has no interest in the reward but merely wants to collect a reimbursement for the expenses he incurred in bringing Ellie back, Andrews realizes that Peter really loves Ellie and suddenly becomes an enthusiastic supporter of their relationship.
Andrews’ support for Peter is reaffirmed after Ellie, also realizing that Peter had not been after the reward, bolts at the altar during the ceremony to reaffirm her marriage to Westley. Andrews then works to have Ellie’s original marriage to the aviator annulled, succeeding in getting Westley to agree to the annulment by offering him a $100,000 bribe. Unlike Peter, he is perfectly willing to exchange Ellie for cash. Ellie and Peter are thus freed to cement their own marriage, so that the Walls of Jericho can finally come tumbling down. This latter event is, of course, discreetly kept off-camera, though it is a clear sign of the film’s pre-Code status that Andrews must rush to complete the annulment because he is told that the Walls of Jericho are already beginning to crumble. The implication—which surely could not have been made after full implementation of the Code—is that Ellie and Peter can resist their mutual sexual desire only so long and that they will eventually have sex with or without the sanction of marriage. Luckily, though, that sanction is attained and the film ends on a happy—but officially certified—note, as Peter blows a trumpet to announce to his new bride that the Walls of Jericho can now come tumbling down.
Importantly, despite the obvious sexual innuendo, this wall is largely one of class, and the collapse of this barrier at the end of It Happened One Night is a classic example of the consistent tendency of American films, especially screwball comedies, to try to deny or efface class difference. Thus, Depression-era audiences, coming into the often posh theaters of 1930s America to see this film, can be reassured that the rich are not ultimately the enemies of the poor and that class differences can be overcome because people are all, in the final analysis, just people. Indeed, the happy ending to the film is ultimately secured as much by Mr. Andrews’ wealth as it is by Peter and Ellie’s mutual love, and the fact remains that, while Ellie seems headed now for marital happiness, it is a happiness that has, to a large extent been purchased by her wealthy father. Capra’s populism—leavened, as Kendall notes, by “his deep attraction to “safety, luxury, and power” (24)—is driven by an intense sympathy for the common people, but falls short of an outright rejection of the rich, who must be judged, it would seem, on a case-by-case basis. It Happens One Night, then, is ultimately a conservative film that reaffirms existing hierarchies of class and gender, while at the same time espousing an individualist sympathy for any (like Peter and Ellie) who stand up for what they believe, whatever their class or gender.
Booker, M. Keith. The Coen Brothers’ America. Rowman and Littlefield, 2019.
Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Harvard University Press, 1981.
Ching, Barbara and Rita Barnard. “From Screwballs to Cheeseballs: Comic Narrative and Ideology in Capra and Reiner.” New Orleans Review 17.3 (1990): 52–59.
Gottlieb, Sidney. “From Heroine to Brat: Frank Capra’s Adaptation of Night Bus (It Happened One Night).” Literature/Film Quarterly 16.2 (1988): 129–36.
Kendall, Elizabeth. The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s. Doubleday, 1990.
Leonard, Garry. “Let’s Get Fiscal: Hollywood Romance and the Mechanism of the Self in Modernity.” Film International 9.5 (2011): 14–29.
Maltby, Richard. “It Happened One Night: The Recreation of the Patriarch.” Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System. Eds. Robert Sklar and Vito Zagarrio. Temple University Press, 1998. 130-63.
Mizejewski, Linda. It Happened One Night. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
 With the demise of the Code in the 1960s, sexuality could be represented more frankly on the screen. As a result, screwball comedy fell out of favor in Hollywood, though films that could be considered screwball comedies continued to appear. Thus, elements of screwball comedy can be found in such films as When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Screwball comedy has been a particularly important influence on the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, most of whose films continue some elements of screwball comedy; many of their films—such as The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and Burn after Reading (2008)—can be considered specifically as contemporary revisions of the genre. For more on screwball comedy in the work of the Coens, see Booker. See also Ching and Barnard for a specific discussion of the relationship between It Happened One Night and the recent films of directors such as Rob Reiner.
 See Maltby for an argument that the entire main plot of It Happened One Night involves Peter’s establishment of sexual ownership of Ellie, having safely reinscribed her within the patriarchal system that she had previously rejected through defiance of her father.
 Mizejewski sees this moment as a crucial milestone in Gable’s rise to superstardom. Noting the widely reported story that undershirts sales dropped by 30% nationwide because Gable was revealed not to be wearing an undershirt in this scene (and American men wanted to follow suit), she concludes that this report probably isn’t true but that its wide circulation suggests the increasingly legendary nature of Gable’s sexual appeal (80–81).
 This driver, incidentally, is played by veteran actor Alan Hale, whose son, Alan Hale, Jr., would go on to fame as the Skipper in the Gilligan’s Island television series (1964–1967).
 See Garry Leonard for an extended discussion of the economic in It Happened One Night and in the 1990 romantic comedy Pretty Woman, within the context of modern technologies for developing conceptions of the self.
 The esteemed critic Stanley Cavell has argued that the film actually has a feminist message and that “an essential goal of the narrative is the education of the woman, where her education turns out to mean her acknowledgement of her desire, and this in turn will be conceived of as her creation, her emergence, at any rate, as an autonomous human being” (84). However, Gottlieb suggests (rightly, I think) that this “is a better description of the story on which the film is based than of the film itself” (130).