There’s nothing embarrassing about loving a good rom-com. “When Harry Met Sally,” “Pretty Woman” -— I’ve watched them all more times than I can say. I count Nora Ephron among my Hollywood heroes, one of the only women to successfully direct, write and produce in an overwhelmingly male industry. But the history of romantic comedies goes far past the 1980s, past “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Dirty Dancing,” and even “Annie Hall.” And in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to pay a tribute to where the Nora Ephrons and Nancy Meyers of today learned all of their tricks, one of my favorite rom-coms of all time, and one of my favorite films of all time: Frank Capra’s 1934 classic “It Happened One Night.”
The film fits historically into the category of “screwball comedies,” a staple of American cinema in the 1930s and ’40s. A sheltered rich girl, Ellie, played by an adorable Claudette Colbert, runs away from her overbearing father to find the famous aviator with whom she has recently eloped. Along the way, she meets down-and-out newspaper man Peter, played by my absolute favorite classical Hollywood actor, Clark Gable (really, what woman isn’t in love with Rhett Butler?). Peter takes the clueless Ellie under his wing, originally for a story that might revitalize his career, but quite quickly for something more. As they bus, hitchhike and generally meander their way up the East Coast, Peter teaches Ellie to live without her aristocratic tendencies, and Ellie forgets about her dud of a pilot. In its use of quick, witty dialog, a strong female lead and situations verging on the absurd, “It Happened One Night,” in terms of genre, fits with movies of its time like Howard Hawkes’ “Bringing Up Baby” or “My Girl Friday” (incidentally also centered on the newspaper business), George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story” or Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve.”
Even the first time I watched “It Happened Last Night,” I noticed that something made the film stand out from its contemporaries. Something about the dialog, the situation and the genuine frankness of the film felt significantly more modern. As it turns out, that’s where history comes into play. Beginning in 1934, when “It Happened One Night” was released, Hollywood imposed a set of production codes on itself in an attempt to avoid any sort of legal censorship. Until the early 1960s, when Hitchcock still had to argue to show the first on-screen toilet in “Psycho,” there would be nothing deemed inappropriate or adverse to American values in Hollywood movies: no profanity, no drugs, no sex or nudity, whether explicit or merely implied. Let me be frank: “It Happened One Night” is in no way an avant-garde film, or at all explicit or racy by today’s standards. It follows the classical cinema model of pushing good family values. When Gable and Colbert share a hotel room, they hang a blanket between their two beds. No sex is ever shown in the film, but “It Happened One Night” still pushes boundaries. Gable often appears shirtless and threatens to take off all of his clothes. Colbert wears only a negligee, which she throws over their makeshift barrier in certain scenes, implying her nudity. Further, the final scene of the film depicts the tearing down of “the walls of Jericho,” a joking euphemism used by the couple for the wall. While not an explicit sex scene, tearing down the barrier between the two beds is about as close as 1930s major Hollywood films get. Because “It Happened One Night” was released just on the border of the enforcement of the production codes, the film feels a bit less prude to modern viewers than some of its contemporaries might.
Still, “It Happened One Night” is tied inextricably to its time period not only in its genre, but also in its theme of class and wealth, reflecting on the ongoing Great Depression. Like Sturges’ later “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), the film mocks the rich for their inability to live like common, down-to-earth Americans. The film portrays an America of brotherhood and community: An old woman helps Ellie to buy her bus ticket, passengers rush to the aid of a woman who faints of hunger and the entire bus sings folk songs together. Ellie learns to love this community atmosphere, forgetting and eventually resisting her aristocratic home. Rather than the wealthy, famous aviator, representative of Ellie’s aristocratic life, it is Peter and his road trip that win Ellie in the end. The Depression-era audience flocked to the movies, a relatively inexpensive way to briefly escape their worries; “It Happened One Night” plays to such an audience in its disavowal of wealth and validation of the American community.
The wonder of “It Happened One Night” is its ability to be at once timely and timeless, a representation of its era and yet a paradigm for years of romantic comedies to come. In the end, its story is simple and universal: Two characters who seem to have nothing in common go through various struggles, at times against one another, at times with one another, and eventually find that in fact they have everything in common. It’s “You’ve Got Mail” and it’s “Something’s Gotta Give.” It’s the story that we have gone to the movies to see for the past 100 years, and will continue to go see for as long as movies are made.