Monday, August 23, 2010

It Happened One Night | 1934 | Pack a sandwich, this post is a long one.

Heiress Ellen Andrews (Claudet Colbert) has escaped her father and is trying to get to her new husband, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), before her father can intercept and force her to annul the marriage. With detectives on her tail, and her face on the front page of all the major newspapers, she travels by bus to keep a low profile. Sharing the ride with her from Miami to New York is Peter Warne (Clark Gabel), a recently fired reporter desperate for a big scoop to save his career.

We were so much more collegial back then.  Not campus-based collegiate, and not office-style colleagues, those words sound brotherly but actually separate educated from not, and white collar from blue collar from no collar.  Nope, not the right words for us.  We were all different, and we knew it, but we never forgot that we were in all of this together.  

It wasn’t all hunky-dory, but that’s what made it great.  Like in “It Happened One Night,” Peter Warne (Clark Gable) insults his boss, has a toe-to-toe argument with a bus driver, and meets Ellen (Claudette Colbert) because he is bickering with her over a bus seat.  Peter’s boss yells back.  The bus driver confronts the unruly passenger.  Ellen keeps the seat, and Peter calls her on it.  (With not subtle and not unfunny foreshadowing he says, “That upon which you sit is mine.”)  After a bit of back and forth, he sits down forcing her to share the not-quite-two-person seat.  That was back then, now the boss wouldn’t yell back for fear his employee would respond with a harassment lawsuit, corporate rules would dictate the bus driver call for his supervisor, and Peter would let the lady have the seat but would stand near-by and glower at her. 

Now, the flight attendant who recently yelled at a passenger, then used the plane’s PA system to quit his job, then allegedly stole beer before he exited via an emergency slide is not an example of collegial.  It is definitely an example of how we were different back then.  Better, actually.  I don’t know how that airline trains its employees, but the customer service training I have experienced these days was, “We’re watching you, so don’t even think about stealing,” and “Initial this form acknowledging you watched the safety video, and will not sue us if you lose a limb in the process of fulfilling our mission statement.”  As far as difficult situations or customers, the company encouraged us to smile until it stopped and/or call for a supervisor.  Nowadays, that is how we act pretty much all the time, on the job and off.  Back then, a person knew how to speak up without leading the other person to tears or violence, and the other person was more accustomed to being challenged, and so was less likely to respond with undue emotion.

It feels like a certain social muscle has atrophied.  We don’t talk to strangers and we don’t make eye contact, and this protects us from dangers but also limits opportunity.  A band boards Peter and Ellen’s bus and begins practicing.  Soon everyone on the bus is singing together, and passengers take turns with solos and dance in the aisles.  Can you imagine that on an airline today?  I’m as anti-social as the next person, and enjoy checking out of the world around me, especially when traveling, but I’d give up that luxury for a bit of this from back then.

A friend once cautioned me against falling for the “noble savage,” he thought I’d watched too many movies and it warped my view of human nature and my expectations of life.  The thing is, I am aware that my ideas about back then are based on a Hollywood concocted fairy tale.  But I also think a person should have goals.  Like Peter, I have seen an island in the Pacific that I haven’t been able to forget.  He and I both hunger for “nights when you and the moon and the water all become one, and you feel you’re part of something big and marvelous.”  Peter is right, that is the only place to live.  Of course Peter lived with racism, classism, crime, poverty, disease and everything else we’ve got now.  If he didn’t, Capra would have filled his films to the gills with pratfalls instead of wasting screen time to show that sacrifice for family and community beats self-interest (It’s a Wonderful Life), honesty trumps corruption (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and integrity endures while cynicism crumbles (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).  Even in my movie based world outlook, I know we weren't perfect back then.  I, like most any film nerd, know that the term Capraesque is at least partially defined by characters fighting against injustice.  Capra’s world is flawed, but his characters keep working at it, they have goals.  Which is why Capracorn, implying a sort of na├»ve and unrealistic idealism, is not really accurate.  Which is why that guy with the "noble savage" theory is no longer around, he didn't get it.

“It Happened One Night,” is less a Capra film and more screwball comedy because of Peter’s “island in the Pacific.”  There are a few hints of Capra’s populist politics in the film.  A woman faints on her son because she spent all her money on a bus ticket to get to NYC for work, and so hadn’t eaten for days.  This is a nod to the Depression, as well as Capra’s belief that the "working man" is dedicated and selfless.  His core beliefs appear in the ways that Peter guides Ellen, too.  Ellen gives Peter’s last $10 to the boy whose mom fainted, to buy her something to eat.  Ellen doesn’t know it’s all the money Peter has, but that’s just it, she’s accustomed to unlimited funds it doesn’t occur to her that it’s possible to run out.  Later, a man offers to get them something to eat, Peter prevents Ellen from “gold-digging” and they decline the offer.  Peter knows that losing that $10 means he’ll have to start selling stuff for cash, and he also knows to assume that everyone else is at least that close to the bone.  And when Ellen insists that they stay a second night in an auto park (motel), Peter is more than a little bit irritated.  They are broke, and yet - for Ellen - he convinces the owner of the place that they'll be staying for a week in order to secure a room for the night.  It’s not a gigantic hospitality conglomerate that Peter might stiff, it’s the man he just talked to.

Of course Peter didn’t maintain proximity to Ellen in order to enlighten and protect her, it’s true that his motive was to get her story and save his career.  That said, he could have taken a documentary-style approach, and simply taken notes while she was robbed, harassed, and wasted her money on chocolates.  It is also true that he intervened because he is sweet on her, and not out of duty to the greater social good, but this is precisely how the film is more screwball than Capra.  The few instances when Capra's politics appear in “It Happened One Night,” it takes backseat to the wooing.  Each event in the film either brings Peter and Ellen closer together, or creates an obstacle that forces them to stick together.  Unlike later Capra, this film supports the funny romance and not an over-arching aphorism.

Screwball is all about love.  Cocktails, night clubs, hotels, yachts, pratfalls, spit-takes, conversations overheard then misinterpreted, mistaken identities, empathetic animals who nudge the right people together, and prospective (or current) spouses who make sense but are clearly all wrong are just a few of the common screwball ingredients that get shaken, blended, and muddled until there is love.  Regardless of which components are put to use, each is there to support a courtship.  “It Happened One Night” is nimble and breezy because the focus is always on Peter and Ellen.  Everything is “need to know,” so the story never gets bogged down by back-story.  The absence of Ellen’s mom is never explained.  Ellen’s father slaps her, but never apologizes.  If this movie were made today, Father and Daughter would likely have a soppy scene when he would reveal some piece of wisdom that mom wanted Ellen to have, “when the time was right.”  And then there’s Ellen’s husband, King.  I’m pretty sure a studio executive and/or preview audience would want to know more about him.  But we only need to know three things about King.  One, he’s in New York and Ellen wants to meet him there.  This gets the story rolling.  Two, both Father and Peter think he’s a joke.  That they arrived at that opinion independently, before they had ever met, signals that Father will accept Peter as much as he’s objected to King.  Three, King is a mug that could easily be bought off for a pot of gold.  In a vacuum, Peter could seem opportunistic, but compared to King he proves to be sincere.  And then there’s Shapely, the obnoxious and overly talkative man on the bus who harasses Ellen.  By comparison Peter is an honorable guy who simply speaks his mind.  It is King and Shapely that gives us the right read on Peter.

A hallmark of the genre is how Peter and Ellen discover their love:  Witty repartee.  (Anything written about screwball comedy is required to use "witty repartee"). Each has spent a lifetime lobbing bons mots over the net, and when they meet, someone finally returns the serve.  (Bon mot, also required).  It is because they kept swinging that they found each other.  If Peter had gone soft, he wouldn’t have said, “That upon which you sit is mine.”  And if she had decided that everything would be easier if she would focus on being agreeable, she'd have let him have the seat and they'd not have had any reason to speak beyond that point.  Yes, back then we were collegial, we engaged with each other and it kept us sharp.  Most of the time when we sought a seat on a bus, the other person would simply scoot over.  Often, after we challenged the bus driver, he made us wait for the next one.  Usually, after the boss fired us, we weren’t offered second chance.  The important thing is that we were who we were, right there in the open.  We were like puzzle pieces, it was our unique edges that enabled us to eventually find where we belonged.

Released: 1934
Director: Frank Capra (Best Director)
Producer:  Frank Capra, Harry Cohn (Best Picture)
Leads: Clark Gable (Best Actor), Claudette Colbert (Best Actress)
Writer: Samuel Hopkins Adams (Short Story), Robert Riskin (Best Screenplay, Adaptation)