A Love Letter To It Happened One Night

In the faraway land of 1935, marking the end of the pre-code Hollywood era, a motion picture called It Happened One Night became the 7th recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Last year, I decided–by the force of some mysterious ambition–to watch every single of the then ninety-two movies that have received the award. The inevitable truth (and statistical likelihood) was that, at some point, they started blending into each other, plots braiding together and unrelated characters merging–there are few movies that truly stand out, no matter how capable, and without a single doubt It Happened One Night is one of them.

Released in 1934, It Happened One Night was directed by Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin, both of whom collaborated on a number of other Academy Award-nominated and -winning movies such as You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Deed Goes To Town (1936). The movie stars Claudette Colbert as Ellen, a rebellious heiress who has just married a man her wealthy father does not approve of, and Clark Gable as Peter, an unemployed journalist in need of a way to make ends meet. When the film begins, Ellen–or Ellie–is being kept locked in a ship (!) by her father, Alexander, because he believes the man she eloped with only married her for financial reasons. Desperate to reunite with the man she believes she loves, Ellie escapes and finds herself in a bus on her way to New York, hoping she will not be recognized since her father is vigorously searching for her. Peter, who is also in the bus, notices the young woman and realizes who she is; in need of money, he proposes to Ellie that she gives him the information to write a story about her, and in turn he will help her find her way back to new husband and not reveal her identity to anyone. Out of choices, Ellen agrees, and the two embark on an unexpected journey together.

When you read the plot of (or even when you watch) the movie, at first it might seem unremarkable, probably not striking enough to stand out between the other ninety-one films I crossed off my Best Picture list. In fact, even the people who haven’t binged almost a hundred movies in less than two months have likely watched so many films that have similar structure that it might be confusing why It Happened One Night was such a success among both audiences and critics. In a way, that’s what I love most about it.

Picture this: the year is 1934, and the colors are all somewhere in the black-white spectrum. Ellie and Peter have just settled on their mutually beneficial agreement; in order to make it to New York, the two find a motel to stay the night. Peter, unemployed and not particularly caring, doesn’t mind spoiled Ellie’s complaints: he tells the owner they are married to avoid the annoyance of being judged, and is stern in his decision to only get one room–after all, each cabin, as Peter tells a stubborn Ellie, “costs two bucks a night and I’m very sorry to inform you, wifey dear, but the family purse won’t stand for our having separate establishments.” Ellie, in her willfulness, rehearses refusal but not for too long–she needs her sleep. But there is only one room. Peter, distant and uninterested as the male protagonist often is in rom-coms that go for the enemies-to-lovers trope, hangs a sheet in the middle of the room, separating the two single beds; he would never want to be that close to her, right? Ironically (though in hindsight perhaps not so much), Ellen tells him that “makes everything quite alright.” In a way, it’s the opposite: the sheet serves as a physical token of the trope the couple represents, and its dividing the room in half begins a countdown–anyone who has seen a rom-com can figure out the bantering that will slowly–in less than two hours–intensify the sexual tension until the inevitable point when the white sheet falls to the ground.

Over the decades, many, many, many movies, shows, books, and (definitely) fanfictions have utilized the Oh no, there is only one room/bed! as the initial fuel that drives the enemies-to-lovers trope. At this point, the concept has been so overused it has become a sort of joke, but in It Happened One Night the scene doesn’t feel forced or tacky. The structure isn’t enormously different from what you could find in many romance Wattpad stories, but it nevertheless feels fresh and interesting. It uses the simulated inevitability in its favor–the cliches exist because they are fun–but makes up for the artificiality with well-written, deliciously flawed characters, witty banter, and amazing chemistry between the protagonists. The fact that it was possibly the first movie to use this gimmick doesn’t deny the mannered nature of rom-com plot structures, but instead symbolizes how–with an innovative take and sterling writing that creates characters with palpable personalities–wonderful pieces of fiction can emerge from tropes we might have written of as hopelessly tacky.

Enemies-to-lovers and stuck-sharing-a-room aren’t the only tropes we can recognize in It Happened One Night: unexpected road-trip, mutually beneficial arrangements, bad-boy gone sweet (as well as the similar “defrosted cold-girl”), love triangle, and last-minute declaration of love are only a few of the others the film shares with so many romantic movies, from How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and The Proposal to 10 Things I Hate About You and Pretty Woman. The key detail, however, is that the film came out when the vast inventory of what we know as the rom-com genre was nonexistent. It surely wasn’t the first romantic comedy ever (that claim would probably make Shakespeare roll around in his grave), but when we’re talking about American cinema, it undoubtedly paved the way for every movie that came after it in the genre, and will continue to do so into the future. It Happened One Night was the first of a seemingly-infinite list of rom-coms, but the reason it’s so delightful is precisely that it does fit into this list. It doesn’t transcend the plot stereotypes; it potentializes them. The film is not a token against so-called “chick-flicks”, a to-go example of what a good rom-com is or should be. Instead, it’s a clear symbol of what they can be. It Happened One Night offers a fresh portrayal of what we now recognize as tropes, and in doing so it shows how a great, admirable, memorable piece of fiction can absolutely coexist with a familiar set of conventions. 

It Happened One Night, which was a mess of sorts during production and Columbia seemed to have had fairly low expectations for, was the recipient not only of the award for Best Picture, but also Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay–every award it was nominated for. Up until this day, only three movies, including It Happened One Night, have been awarded the five. Among the almost-hundred Best Picture winners I watched, It Happened One Night demanded time for a second glance. After digesting the movie, I could not look at the rom-com genre the same way again; and so it became clear just how much it had meant for all the romantic comedies that would come, that single historical night in 1935.

 

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