not in our stars, but in ourselves
Somehow or other, despite its being one of my very favorite films, I’ve never burdened you lot with a post about It Happened One Night. What’s wrong with me, anyway? The television programming gods, in their infinite wisdom, aired it recently (and for all the convenience of streaming and torrenting and downloading and what-have-you, there’s nothing quite so serendipitous as happening upon a much-loved movie just when it starts playing on TV) – and reminded me of just how much I love it. While it’s certainly not about Big Issues, it’s an awful lot of fun, and it’s an interesting artifact of a cusp in Hollywood history.
Madcap heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) recently eloped with the headline-hungry daredevil “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas). Her father (Walter Connolly) opposes the marriage, and wants to have it annulled. Ellie doesn’t like that one bit. She jumps off her father’s yacht, docked somewhere in the Miami harbor, and runs away. Because she knows Father will have his detectives watching train stations and airports especially closely, she opts to head to New York by bus. There she meets sassy, down-on-his-luck reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). He realizes before long that she’s the focus of a lot of media hubbub – her escape and her father’s pleas for her to return are splashed across every front page in the country – and decides to shepherd her back to New York, back to her new husband, if she lets him have the scoop of the century. Mayhem ensues, they fall in love, happy endings for all. Don’t worry.
While romantic comedies have existed in one form or another for about as long as literature itself, Hollywood didn’t quite join the party until – well, until It Happened One Night. You are all welcome to challenge my scholarship (or just plain knowledge), but I believe this was the first film to exemplify the genre we now know and don’t admit to loving. Yes, of course, there were comedies with romance and romances with comedy before this. I don’t think the union of the couple was quite the impetus for the entire plot, however. For all Chaplin and Keaton’s efforts to woo whichever Jazz Age darling, she was usually a pretty peripheral character – and, besides, there was usually some other business propelling the action. During the fabulous Pre-Code era – of which It Happened One Night is a very, very late example, nearly over the Breen-policed border – sex was the prime motivator of many a movie. Perhaps James Cagney and Joan Blondell were truly in love with each other – but that wasn’t the point. The point was how desperate everyone was to tear off each other’s clothes. Now, of course, you can say sex is the prime motivator for Ellie and Peter, too; for all the lovely sentiment of modern ideas of romance, it’s all ultimately about sex. It’s obfuscated, however much it’s hinted at and implied and winked at, it’s presented as a story about two seemingly unsuited people who discover, lo and behold, that they’re soulmates. “Love Triumphant,” as one of the headlines screams – a love that, in the mid-twentieth century sense, is ultimately about marriage and devotion. (More on that presently.)
And isn’t that the basic template of 95% of romantic comedies since? Man and woman meet in unlikely circumstances. They don’t much like each other at first. One of them feels a pang of human pity or empathy or something and helps the other. The other is grateful. Gratitude blooms. Love blossoms. Fate places a few more trifling obstacles in their path, but all’s well that ends well – usually in a marriage, or some other stable relationship resulting in lots of sex and babies. You can count an awful lot of movies that fit this pattern – but I am almost certain that It Happened One Night is the first.
I mentioned the Production Code up there, and I want to keep that in mind. For those of you who don’t read everything I write with religious fervor, you can find out more about the Code here; as a brief summary: during the late 1920s, moral guardians of all stripes were downright scandalized by the filthy sin Hollywood was peddling, and Hollywood executives – public relations masterminds that they were – commissioned a Catholic priest and a layman to write a Production Code. They were rules that were supposed to govern the making of motion pictures: no sex outside marriage, unless it was appropriately punished and/or repented for; no unpunished/unrepented sins; no sins made to look enjoyable or profitable; no love story that didn’t resolve itself in either marriage (for comedies) or eternal regret (for tragedies). In other words: no more fun. The Code was officially adopted in 1930, but Hollywood just sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudged it out of the way, and made some movies that – even to this day – were pretty darn racy.
By 1934, the writing was on the wall. There was enough moral outrage for Hollywood studio heads to listen – because heaven forbid it affect their bottom line. Joseph Breen was appointed the chief of the Production Code Administration, and policed every inch of every film. If it didn’t adhere to the Code, it had better shape up, or else it would be denied the now-necessary Production Code certificate of approval. Without that, films essentially could not be distributed.
And so we have It Happened One Night: released before the Code was technically being enforced, but at a time when they all knew what was coming. I think that’s why it emphasizes the marriage plot – but it’s not without its saucy innuendos. Specifically, the Walls of Jericho. While Peter and Ellie are traveling north, they share a motel room. It has twin beds, of course, but even so, no respectable couple would share a room unless they were married. Peter checks them in as Mr. and Mrs. Warne, for economy’s sake, but he puts up a makeshift barrier between his side of the room and Ellie’s: a string with a blanket over it, which he calls the Walls of Jericho. If you’re up on your Biblical stories (I’m not especially, but I sort of know this one), you recall that Jericho was protected by seemingly impenetrable walls, which toppled when Joshua blew his horn. Here, I think we can see the kind of loophole that filmmakers sought throughout Breen’s reign. It follows the rules: no sex before marriage. It mentions the Bible. It preserves everyone’s modesty. But it’s just about said out loud, right at the end, that the toppling of the Walls of Jericho has become (a) a metaphor for the sexual union of Peter and Ellie, and (b) their particular kink. For their honeymoon – don’t worry, don’t worry, they’re married, it’s all kosher – they stay in another nondescript motor lodge, where the obliging ma-and-pa proprietors are slightly confused by their new guests:
Zeke’s Wife: Funny couple, ain’t they?
Zeke’s Wife: If you ask me, I don’t believe they’re married.
Zeke: They’re married all right. I just seen the license.
Zeke’s Wife: They made me get them a rope and a blanket on a night like this. What do you reckon that’s for?
Zeke: Blamed if I know. I just brung ’em a trumpet.
Zeke’s Wife: A trumpet?!
Zeke: Yeah, one of them toy things. They sent me to the store to get it.
Zeke’s Wife: But what in the world do they want a trumpet for?
[The trumpet sounds, and the blanket falls to the floor]
The end, wild applause, well done everyone.
There were plenty of films released during the Breen Era – which was also the era most consider the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, from the mid ’30s through the 1950s – that were considerably truer to the intended spirit of the Code: romantic comedies without a whiff of sex, without a hint of desire. And frankly, that’s continued to be the case throughout the genre since, all too often. How many rom-coms can you name where the two leads’ sexual interest in one another is part of even the subtext? Some, perhaps, but not many. No wonder we all have such screwy ideas of love. Anyway, it’s for that very reason that I find It Happened One Night to be such a delight: it’s the first true rom-com, as far as I can tell; and it’s one of the most fun. Love is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be sexy. The Code did its darnedest to keep that out of the picture, to keep women in the kitchen and barefoot and pregnant (or at least to try to make them want that above all else), but it’s awfully nice to see Colbert and Gable show us all how to outwit Father’s detectives.