Some classic movies sound good in theory, yet tend to wallow on Must See lists and Netflix queues rather than actual screens, as the timing may just never feel quite right to sit down and watch a heady 3 hour epic or a cerebral foreign drama. And then there are movies like It Happened One Night, which is just about as much of a delight today as it was upon initial release. Part of the reason it still feels so fresh and vibrant is Hollywood’s inherently cyclical nature—when one film does something right, it’s natural that later films would attempt to replicate certain elements in hopes of creating some of the same movie magic. Well, It Happened One Night did the romantic comedy so well that it’s not only been copied countless times, but it also firmly established many of the genre’s tropes that we now come to take for granted.
We begin with Ellie, a willful, headstrong heiress, whose father is trying to get her recent marriage annulled. She’s rich, yes, spoiled, sure, but still feeling trapped within her father’s rulings about whom she can and cannot love. When she slips out from her father’s reach (literally and metaphorically), she starts making her way back to her husband in New York City. This proves more troublesome than it might be for most of us raised without the silver spoon, as the poor little rich girl isn’t quite used to travel without a personal valet and a private chauffeur.
Luckily (for the audience), streetwise reporter Peter happens to get on the same northbound bus as her. He’s down on his luck, but always on the lookout for a great story—and he’s about to find one. He’s a bit of a cad, rough around the edges and always looking out for himself and his self-image, as that’s his currency on the streets. What Ellie lacks in street smarts, Peter makes up for in spades, just as Ellie’s refinement balances out his uncouthness. Later romantic comedies love to explore the concept of “opposites attracting,” and Peter and Ellie are a great example of that trope being executed very, very well.
They meet, as of course they must, in “meet cute” style. The Meet Cute is an essential component of the romantic comedy, taking the mundane event of meeting another person and turning it into an observable character moment. Executed properly—whether interrupted golf game, double in the window, or a movie star literally dropping into a moving car—this can make or break the audience’s perception of the characters and their eventual relationship. Here, Peter gets into trouble for clearing the back seat of a bus of stacks of newspapers. While arguing with the driver, Ellie wanders into the recently vacated seat and claims it for her own. The seats aren’t reserved, after all, as she proudly informs him. Peter, however, takes his revenge by plunking himself directly and uncomfortably in the seat next to her—the bench fits two, after all, as he proudly informs her. From this simple interaction, we learn that not only is Ellie used to always getting what she wants, but Peter is used to having to fight for it—and, like a dog with a bone, isn’t willing to let it go easily.
Their “feud” starts from there, but it also belies a secret romantic attraction. The hate-to-love relationship is a favorite in literature and film, even outside the romcom genre—from The Taming of the Shrew to The Philadelphia Story, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. People just love to watch sassy, snarky characters argue with each other, right up to the point that they realize they’re actually in love. The shift from slaps to kisses is particularly satisfying as an audience because of the full narrative arc it spans; like the rookie who becomes a superstar within the confines of a single movie, we can watch this romance start from less than nothing. The success of this trope depends on the charm of the leads, as well as the skill and nuance of the writers and directors; a sloppy execution can easily veer into the jerky, the cruel, the distant, and the mean. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie and hoping against hope that these two characters won’t end up together, yet knowing that they will. Luckily, It Happened One Night does it well, and Colbert and Gable play up their angry sexual tension to the film’s everlasting advantage.
As they continue on the road, Peter and Ellie begin setting up (or expanding upon) many of the basic elements of the “road trip” romantic comedies that would follow—movies like The African Queen, Romancing the Stone, or Anastasia, and, of course, countless fan fictions. Peter and Ellie have to pretend to be married, and do so a little too convincingly—yep. They check into a hotel only to discover that they’ll have to share a room (modern romcoms sometimes sex this up to a single bed)—mmhmm. The car breaks down and they have to do something silly that ends up bonding them closer than ever and hey, I’ve never noticed your eyes were so beautiful in the moonlight—check. Colbert’s famous hitchhiking sequence has itself been emulated many, many times in the 80 years since, both directly (Mystic Pizza does a direct riff on the scene, although it ends with the male character dropping his trousers), as well as referenced indirectly in many more.
And what would a romantic comedy be without a misunderstanding that causes the couple to break up, and inspire us to desperately continue watching, hoping for their ultimate reunion? Peter thinks Ellie’s happy going home to her brand new (but as yet unconsummated) husband; Ellie thinks Peter’s been using her to claim a monetary reward the whole time. And like the damn fools they are, nobody communicates anything clearly, and the whispers of love morph back into hatred.
But, in the world of the romantic comedy, all misunderstandings must come to an end, and preferably this should occur at a wedding. To a modern viewer, it’s always funny how many of these big climaxes occur at weddings: the bride and groom switching partners just before they go in, an additional couple opting to piggyback on the previously scheduled ceremony, or the father of the bride revealing that that past suitor really DID love her literally as they walk down the aisle (there’s no better moment to have a heart-to-heart!), and so on. It Happened One Night goes with the latter example, and as soon as Ellie realizes that Peter wasn’t conning her, she hightails it from her own wedding to go find and marry him.
It Happened One Night is truly a timeless example of the romantic comedy, and with the snappy dialogue, outrageous Colbert/Gable chemistry, and familiar (but well executed) tropes, it’s always an entertaining film to watch… no matter if it’s 1936 or 2016.