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|Written by April Yorke|
|Thursday, 11 February 2010 00:00|
As you are inundated by ads for the mediocre- to heinous-looking Valentine's Day, you may wonder why people even bother making romantic comedies any more. Every new one looks exactly like eight old ones that came before it, creating a simulacrum all its own. If they've lost their ability to surprise or even charm, why bother?
My lack of enthusiasm for modern-day romantic comedies is well documented. Too often they depend on egregious lies or wild misunderstandings to keep the couple apart, and we're forced to accept that smart, beautiful, successful women are secretly shrews hell bent on securing a man. Of course, the massive lie or misunderstanding comes to light, and someone has to go chasing someone else across an airport/train station/bus station/ferry/lunar launch pad to declare their undying love in front of a font of witnesses.
Now that you're thoroughly turned off the genre, may I suggest something? Go back to the beginning.
Way back in February 1934, director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin released their adaptation of Samuel Hopkins Adams' short story and turned it into the first screwball (and romantic) comedy. It starred screen greats Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and was the first ever picture to win the Academy's "Grand Slam:" Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Yet the movie has been unjustly forgotten in the intervening years. When people think of black and white screwball comedies, they think of Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib) or maybe they get as far as Rosalind Russell and her fabulous hats (à la His Girl Friday). When people think of Clark Gable, he's defined by two roles: Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind and Gay Langland in The Misfits. When people think of Claudette Colbert, . . . they don't.
Good news! There is no "don't get on that plane!" scene in It Happened One Night. Five prurient years later, Gable as Butler would tell Scarlett that she needs kissing and often and by someone who knows how, but in puritan 1934 the on-screen couple never even shares a kiss. How can a movie simultaneously be the foundation for every romantic comedy ever made yet so incongruous to its tropes? By inventing them. When you do it first, you have the luxury of being right until someone can do it better. Let's examine a few of those tropes to see why they worked.
Socialite on the run, 0:03
Wrong side of the tracks romances require at least one part to be from the "right" side, and Ellie (Colbert) is our girl. She's trapped on a boat by her father who is insistent on annulling her marriage to King Westley. Ellie's on a hunger strike, and, when that doesn't work, she makes a break for it and jumps off the side of the boat. Girl's got moxie.
Problems with Authority, 0:04
When we meet Peter (Gable), he's drunkenly chewing out his editor from the phone booth at a bus station. Naturally, this manoeuvre gets him fired.
If there's one thing every romantic comedy male lead needs (besides to look like Clark Gable, obviously), it's wit. Peter gets into an altercation with the bus driver before the bus (Miami to New York) is even in motion, and the argument eventually gets to the "Aw, yeah?" stage. Fortunately, Peter doesn't care for "Aw, yeah?" as a rejoinder: "Now that's a brilliant answer. Why didn't I think of it? Our conversation could have been over long ago."
Surprise Physical Contact, 0:08
Peter forces his way into the seat that Ellie has just stolen and refused to give up, and he offers to put her bag in the overhead compartment by way of smoothing things over. Ellie is in no mood and shoves the bag up there herself, which is the exact moment the bus takes off. The lurch sends her into Peter's lap.
Softening Feelings, 0:14
Ellie's fallen asleep on Peter, and he's kindly covered her up with his jacket and sweater. When she wakes up at the next stop, she apologizes, thanks him for his kindness, and asks why he didn't just shove her off. Peter: "You look kind of pretty asleep." Peter even goes so far as to offer to buy Ellie breakfast, as her suitcase with nearly all of her money was stolen at the last stop. Ellie refuses, setting off for a hotel that she couldn't possible reach within the allotted breakfast break time.
Re-hardening of Feelings, 0:17
Waiting at the bus station has afforded Peter the opportunity to pick up the paper, and Ellie's escape made the front page. Ellie begs Peter not to notify her father, offering money in exchange for his silence.
The Scam, 0:18
Now that Peter's figured out who Ellie is, she's his next story and ticket to get back on the payroll.
Chivalry is Not Dead, 0:20
Ellie's gone and sat down next to a boor who likes that she snaps back because "the colder they run, the hotter they get." The very idea that someone would speak to a woman that way is enough for Peter to jump out of his seat, pretend to be Ellie's husband, and tell the guy to beat it.
A washed out bridge forces all the bus passengers into a campground for the night, and Peter secures a cabin for him and Ellie. Ellie's a little nervous about this, but Peter assures her he's only interested in her exclusive story and hangs a blanket on a rope (which they dub "the walls of Jericho") between the two sides of the room for privacy. Peter is trying, valiantly, to get Ellie on her side of the room, so they can both sleep. Ellie is having none of it, so Peter takes to undressing in front of her in an attempt to embarrass her away.
In on the Scam, 0:38
Detectives hired by her father turn up looking for Ellie, so Peter and Ellie play up being an argumentative married couple to make the detectives so uncomfortable that they take off without getting a good look at Ellie.
The Almost Kiss, 0:58
Peter and Ellie have to leave the bus because the same big mouth that hit on Ellie has figured out who she is and plans to turn her in for the $10,000 reward. They hide out in a hay field for the night. During their silliness and banter, Peter goes off to find Ellie something to eat. She absolutely freaks out when she thinks he's taken off and throws her arms around him upon his return. He tucks her into her impromptu hay bed with his trench coat, and, with their faces close, we think, "Kiss! Kiss!" Ellie certainly looks open to it, but Peter decides against it at the last minute.
Show 'Em How It's Done, 1:03
Despite his brilliant three-fold approach to hitch-hiking, Peter fails to secure them a ride. Ellie offers to give it a try and gets it in one:
Why it works: If there's a single iconic scene from It Happened One Night, it's this one. It's about time for Ellie to take Peter down a peg, show him he needs her. He can't argue that her approach worked.
Desperate Confession, 1:16
Ellie's unnecessarily delayed their trip by insisting on finding somewhere to spend the night even though New York's three hours away, but Peter's gone along with her plan. As they sit in the darkness of their cabin with the walls of Jericho between them, Ellie gets Peter to admit that he does want a relationship. He describes moving away with his love to an island in the Pacific, and Ellie suddenly appears, begging Peter to take her with him. She loves him and can't live without him. Hard-hearted Peter sends Ellie back to her bed. When she's asleep, however, Peter confesses that he feels the same way and forms a plan for them to be together.
After Peter takes off to get money to marry Ellie, the cabin's operators kick Ellie out in the middle of the night for shirking the bill. Distraught, Ellie calls her father, who has made up with King in his desperation to get Ellie back home safely. Pretty soon, Peter's heartbroken and Ellie's set for a church wedding with someone she doesn't love.
A Matter of Principle, 1:36
Peter is so heartbroken that he turns being petty into a moral stand. He contacts Ellie's father regarding a financial matter concerning Ellie. After learning that his daughter's heart really belongs to Peter, Mr. Andrews calls Peter in on her wedding day and offers him the $10,000 reward. Peter, however, is only interested in the $39.60 total of his itemized list of articles hawked to buy Ellie's gas. It's a matter of principle.
Runaway Bride, 1:42
Mr. Andrews has just spent their walk down the aisle telling Ellie that Peter really does love her and is a decent chap. When it comes time for "I do," Ellie bolts.
Instead of ridiculous lies, the only thing standing between Peter and Ellie is Peter and Ellie. A story brings them together on a road trip, and their biggest problem is having enough cash to make it from Miami to New York and still feed themselves. It Happened One Night is a delightful romantic comedy, full of intelligence and wit, while modern day romances lean on obnoxious characters in unlikely circumstances. When people say, "They don't make 'em like they used to," they're talking about this movie.
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Tags: cinema, clark gable, claudette colbert, foundation, frank capra, it happened one night, james cameron, oscars, rom com