by Diannah Plaisir
Every so often there is a film created that becomes the blueprint for other films to follow. It Happened One Night (1934) is a film pivotal to the development of the romantic comedy genre. Frank Capra’s form of tackling societal issues like classism, or sexism is nothing short of brilliance.
The purpose of this film was not only to create a pivotal romantic comedy but also to send a message about society at the time. It Happened One Night was created during the end of The Great Depression, a time where people were struggling with unemployment, poverty, and homelessness.
The film, set in the 1930s, holds commentary on societal issues that are still relevant. In fact, traces of his comedy can still be found in romantic comedies today. Popular tropes like a rich and poor pairing, road trip, or forced proximity can be claimed as originated from here. The constant escapism elements paired with the societal class mismatch has made this film a staple in the genre of romantic comedies.
The unlikely couple, a pretentious, superiority-complex heiress and a pessimistic, recently fired journalist, make for a pair filled with screwball comedy opportunities. In the beginning we learn that the female lead, Ellie Andrews, is initially unable to marry/be with the man she wanted. Immediately we are given this character, who although is living beyond comfortably, is also unhappy with her circumstances. So much so that she decided to run away. On the other hand we have Peter Warren, a man who loses his job because he was too cocky for his own good. At first it seems like these two individuals would be terrible for each other. However, that is what makes it a comedy. Her negatives complement his positives and vice versa. Their opposition really shines through in each scene they share together from their first meeting to the infamous “Walls of Jericho”.
“Walls of Jericho”, being the scene where they are forced to share a cabin together. The contrast in their behavior sets up a great scene. Ellie is overly shy while Peter is overly bold. In this moment, we expect that he is putting up a sheet between their two beds to respect her while she’s getting ready for the night. Instead, Peter shocks us, saying “I like privacy when I retire… prying eyes annoy me.”
[Claudette Colbert’s Ellie proves that “the limb is mightier than the thumb.”]
“Opposites attract” is one of the original tropes in romance and largely a part of what makes the unlikely couple so funny. Due to the clear contempt each character has for each other (at least originally), there is a constant battle between them to prove who’s better. For example, when Ellie immediately tries to buy Peter’s silence instead of simply asking him to stay quiet. Peter is immediately turned off by this and turns away from her. Although Ellie is the rich one in the situation, money does not grant her all her wishes. Later on, when they cross paths again on the bus Ellie tries her hardest to avoid sitting next to him. Unfortunately, her seat partner is an obnoxious sleeper and thus she reluctantly goes next to him. In this sense, Peter has won.
As stated earlier, Capra’s influences can still be seen in movies of the modern age. After a recent rewatch, his pull can be seen in a movie like The Proposal (2009).Similar to It Happened One Night, The Proposal is a movie about two opposites in different classes. We have a snobby, mean, insensitive boss and her lapdog assistant, who wants nothing more than to move up in his career.
Margaret, the boss, is being deported to Canada but comes up with the idea of marrying Andrew, the assistant, in order to stay and keep her position. However, with its own twist, it turns out that the overworked, down to earth guy is actually the son of rich parents. Andrew is rejecting his parents’ wealth because he feels like it isn’t his and he wants to make his own way in the world.
So, similar to Peter, Andrew takes the first opportunity he can with the female lead to support his career, but inevitably ends up falling in love instead.
Their dynamic in the movie can be loosely called identical with modern elements. From Walls of Jericho paralleling the first night they shared together to the boat scene paralleling the hotel room scene. Capra’s influences are especially strong in the marriage proposal story scene where Margaret is forced to share how Andrew “proposed”. Her fake over the top reactions are similar to Ellie’s reactions when trying to scare off the investigators.
It’s clear that Capra and It Happened One Night are forever cemented as the original and one of the most influential romantic comedies. This is a film that shows comedy can be done correctly while also having a strong story and strong message.