Ethics & Public Policy Center

It Happened One Night



[This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called “Isn’t It Romantic? Romance at the Movies, 1934-1989″ at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (Go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend.) The series opened on Tuesday, June 17th with It Happened One Night by Frank Capra. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes, first about romance in general and then about the movie. This is what I said:]

Welcome, especially, to all those who came last year to our series on the American Movie Hero and have come back again for more. This year’s theme, as you will all know by now, is the Movie Romance. It is still mostly American, although it includes one British film, and I see it as following on naturally from the heroic theme of last year’s series. This is partly because, historically, romance and heroism were intimately connected. The earliest romances had to do with the love lives of heroes — in particular knights of the Round Table like Launcelot, Gawain, Yvain and others — because love, like honor, was thought to be appropriate to the knightly and aristocratic social classes. We shall see vestigial evidence of the same assumption in several of this year’s films, including the one we are showing this evening, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, even though the romance here has obviously come a long way from its medieval origins.

Romantic love is, like the masculine sense of honor that was common to so many of last year’s heroes, a Western invention born of the Christian tradition. Just as Christianity’s adversarial stance versus the traditional honor culture — at the heart of which was enshrined the vendetta — created a new sort of gentlemanly honor, so the Judeo-Christian tradition of monogamy created the medieval European romance and the long line of romantic fiction which has grown out of it. Monogamy, of course, means exclusion, and exclusion is more likely to lead to tragedy than comedy. Or so you might think. Certainly the greatest of the love stories from the early days of romance in the Middle Ages, those of Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Guinevere were both tragic and adulterous. The greatest English romance of the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was also tragic. Even the romantic comedies of Shakespeare have an edge of sadness to them, a sense that the love and happiness at the end of them are torn at the last minute, often by some ridiculous chance, from the very teeth of despair.

There was, when I was a student, quite a controversy over C.S. Lewis’s contention in his first and most influential literary book, The Allegory of Love, that what he called “courtly love” always had to be adulterous. Later scholars insisted that Lewis had made the mistake of taking Andreas Capellanus, the author of the 12th century treatise, De Amore, too seriously and of failing to recognize that Andreas’s insisting on the lover’s loving only someone other than a spouse was ironic. It always seemed to me that, if it was ironic, that would tend to reinforce Lewis’s case, since his making fun of such a notion would have meant that the idea of love as inevitably adulterous was much more widespread than just Andreas’s little tongue-in-cheek guide. In any case, I don’t think there can be much doubt that love, like honor, was for long seen as an aristocratic pastime and had not very much to do with the institution of marriage except insofar as the wedding that took place at the end of a series of romantic adventures was conventionally taken to be the image of earthly felicity: “happily ever after,” as the fairy tales put it.

But Shakespearean comedy also provides a foreshadowing of what was to become, in the revolutionary 18th century, the domestic romance that was the product of the simultaneous rise of the novel and of the middle classes. What is often taken to be the earliest English novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, became the sensation of the 1740s by telling the story of a poor but honest maid-servant who becomes the victim of an aristocratic sexual predator, her employer, and ends by becoming his wife. It was a great tribute to the principle of “virtue rewarded” (to use Richardson’s subtitle) and to the belief that was to hold such sway for the next two centuries, that it was by saying “no” to male sexual importunity that the “good girl” of humble background could finally win her way to happiness as a wife in her own home rather than a mistress in somebody else’s. It must have seemed quite a progressive, even a feminist idea at the time.

Now it was not just the wedding but what we have since learned to call bourgeois marriage and the establishment of a new household which served as the image of human happiness. And this idea was still very close to the heart of the popular culture right down to the age of the talking cinema. As I say, there is just the hint of the class origins of the domestic romance in It Happened One Night. Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, the spoiled daughter of a fabulously wealthy father, played by Walter Connolly, who rebels against his wishes in choosing to marry a young man of whom he disapproves. The overtones of aristocratic tradition, of dynastic and arranged marriages and of women as the property of their fathers, are all present in this scenario, but only to be mixed up and confounded. For the young man is disapproved of not on the grounds that he is unsuitable from the dynastic point of view but because wise old dad really does know better than his daughter that the playboy aviator and celebrity, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), is a “phony” and won’t make her happy.

I just love the wonderfully American political incorrectness of this idea. Old man Andrews could so easily have been a caricature villain to a more ideologically-minded film-maker than Frank Capra: an oppressor of the workers and a domestic tyrant. But his worst sin seems to be the one that he is accused of by Peter Warne, the déclassé journalist played by Clark Gable, which is that he has pampered and spoiled his daughter to the point at which she feels she must rebel against him. Yet it is once again the patriarch who is the first to see that Warne, this man of the people who professes to despise him and all his class — “You, King Westley, your father.You”re all a lot of hooey to me!” he tells Ellie — is the one who will make his daughter happy and actually proposes an elopement with him in the middle of her wedding to Westley.

It’s worth remembering that this film dates from the depths of the Depression, 1934 — the same year in which the Hays Code — Hollywood’s 30-year-long experiment in self-regulation in response to complaints of immorality in the movies — was instituted. It should also be seen in connection with the coming of the Roosevelt administration and the repeal of Prohibition the year before. The high living and sexual experimentation that had been a characteristic of the Jazz Age of the 1920s — or at least of the stories it told itself — was now getting something of a re-think at the same time that so many of that decade’s nouveau riche were being brought down to earth with a bump. The conventional wisdom holds that this was a period when people went to the movies looking for “escape” from the hardships of their daily lives, and that that is why so many pictures from those years have happy endings and deal, as this one does, with life among the rich. People liked to imagine themselves as part of this world of glitz and sophistication because their own lives were so very different.

I have my doubts about this idea. Escape of one sort or anoth
er has been characteristic of the movies’ allure throughout their history. And if by escape we mean to imply that the world audiences are escaping to is unreal, it is at least arguably more characteristic of the comic book fantasies of our own time than it is of moral dramas like It Happened One Night or most of the other romances of the 1930s and 1940s. Ellie Andrews may have been an heiress, but the moral choices she confronts would have been familiar ones to the audience. Frank Capra subtly but frequently reminds us of the backdrop of the Depression against which his reverse Cinderella-story takes place. Clark Gable, for instance, is first introduced to us in the process of throwing away a job — something that must have seemed almost lunatic folly to the original audience — while drunk and telling off his employer. Yet he was also reminding them that this, too, is part of the American dream: the sense of self-respect and self-sufficiency that allows us to tell the boss to “Take this Job and Shove It.” In a way it is the American dream.

Such quixotic bravado puts us on  notice that here is a free man with a masculine confidence that he will always be able to make his way in the world. It is only when he begins to think of the “plans” that he shyly admits to Ellie on their last night together he has been “sucker enough” to make that he joins the many men before and since who have been induced to take up a life of adult responsibility by the love of a good woman. As he says after his midnight dash to New York to his editor, Joe, the man he had earlier railed at: “I can’t propose to a gal without a cent in the world, can I?” Later, as he is on the way back from New York with Joe’s $1000 for his story, he stops at a rail crossing as a freight train passes with hoboes all over it. Peter waves to them in friendly solidarity as a reminder both of the Depression and of his never-renounced class solidarity with the poorest, even as he thinks he is about to propose to an heiress.

Yet he never for a moment, apparently, considers not working to support his wife (and prospective children) like other men, in spite of her father’s millions. We see much of the period’s idea of masculine and honorable self-respect both here and in his unwillingness to take advantage of a lady in a vulnerable position. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when, on the run, Peter tucks Ellie in to her straw bed in the midst of nowhere with his raincoat and their faces come to within kissing distance as her eyes glisten expectantly in the darkness. But Peter pulls away with a gruff and off-putting “I was just wondering what makes dames like you so dizzy.” Here, as in what Peter calls the Walls of Jericho — the blanket he hangs between their two beds — is the romance of restraint that we’ll have occasion to notice again and again in the next eight weeks. During that time, I hope I’ll be able to persuade you that it is central to the experience of romance itself — indeed, that there can be no romance without it. The romance of restraint is, perhaps, the legacy to the bourgeois or domestic romance from those old, tragic romances of the middle ages.

We have already had a reminder of the vulnerability that the gentlemanly Peter refuses to take advantage of in the shape of the very ungentlemanly bus passenger, Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns). He is what they used to call a “masher,” and he reminds us and Ellie that by running away from her family’s protection she has entered a world in which single women were often regarded as fair game — a world in which the masculine proclivity for sex as mere fun could be freely indulged by turning predator against women unwise enough to be without the protection of husband, brother or father. That Shapeley is a mere buffoon does not lessen her sense of gratitude when she is rescued by the masterful Clark Gable in an act of characteristically gruff generosity. “You’re as helpless as a baby,” he tells her, and immediately takes her in charge. Rescuing her from Shapeley gives him some of the rights of a protector, and he immediately takes advantage of them to deny her the chocolate she tries to purchase. “You’re on a budget from now on,” he says. Thus the kind of patriarchal diktat that made her run away in the first place now, already, on her second night on the road, is beginning to seem almost welcome.

At the same time, we have seen Capra’s comic take on masculine rituals of dominance in Gable’s verbal duel with Ward Bond’s driver and his repeated and menacing iterations of “Oh yeah?” Finally, Gable replies: “Ya got me. Yeah!” This makes the bus passengers laugh and so defuses a situation which had been threatening to turn to violence. Capra again keeps it all comic and light-hearted — in the same spirit as that by which the overbearing patriarch turns out to be a teddy bear. On the one occasion when Gable does have to resort to violence, that is, when he catches the man who has made off with their things in his car, the fight between them — and Gable’s expropriation of the car after tying the other man to a tree (he says) — all the potential drama of these events is shunted off-screen lest it interfere with light banter and playful quarreling that is the nursery of Peter and Ellie’s love.

Perhaps the most brilliant scene in what is often a brilliant picture, and certainly the funniest, comes when Old Man Andrews’s detectives come into the cabin shared by Peter and Ellie, the runaway heiress they are looking for. In order to throw up a smokescreen, the couple — who only met 36 hours earlier — suddenly begin improvising a marital spat which is so persuasive that the detectives are left in no doubt that these two are who they say they are — and who in fact, of course, they are not. The potentially serious subject of domestic tyranny is once again turned into a joke as the mock-tyrant shouts at his mock-victim to “Quit bawling!” — and then both of them burst into laughter as soon as the detectives have gone. You have to listen carefully for it, but be sure not to miss the one detective saying to the other on the way out, apparently without the slightest ironic intention: “I told you they were a perfectly nice married couple.”

Interestingly, this happens just after Ellie has told Peter that “I would change places with a plumber’s daughter any day.” Rather mischievously, I think, he then takes up this wish in their staged quarrel, saying wrathfully to her in tones suggesting that he is the one in the relationship who has had to condescend to her: “Once a plumber’s daughter, always a plumber’s daughter.” I think she must be as delighted as he is at this play-acted reversal of their relative positions, since it allows them both to pretend that love between them, even if it is a sort of brawling love, is not so impossible as both of them are already beginning to wish it weren’t. Why should the happiness that even plumbers’ daughters had come to think of as their right by 1934 not be available to them, too? What has she just renounced her family’s protection for if not for this?

What I like best about such (now) old movies as It Happened One Night is that they have a seriousness and a moral weight to them that are almost never to be found in the romantic comedies of today where “love,” in the words of the bogus newspaper headline greeting the reunion of Ellie with King Westley, “is triumphant.” Funny as these movies often are, they also have a much more serious side. The romance of restraint makes love and marriage momentous decisions involving one and only one chance to choose right. That’s why, I think, Ellie’s decision is deferred to the moment when she is called upon to say “I will” to King Westley. As in the days of Shakespeare and Jane Austen and the flowering of the domestic romance, people knew as well as they do now that many marriages were unhappy. But they also knew, as their Victorian parents and grandparents had kn
own, that it is not just love but commitment in love that is the triumph and, therefore, the image of human happiness.

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