(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Spoiled Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) escapes from her millionaire father (Walter Connolly), who wants to stop her from marrying a worthless playboy. En route to New York, Ellie gets involved with an out-of-work newsman, Peter Warne (Clark Gable). When their bus breaks down, the bickering couple set off on a madcap hitchhiking expedition. Peter hopes to parlay the inside story of their misadventures into a job. But complications fly when the runaway heiress and brash reporter fall in love.
– From DVD Production Notes
It Happened One Night is one of the only romantic comedies I can stand. The other one is When Harry Met Sally… (1989), mostly because Harry Burns is so direct and hilarious I never tire of watching him.
I suppose there are some similarities between him and Gable’s Peter Warne. A romantic comedy is nothing without an interesting prospect. In many ways Colbert’s Ellie and Sally Albright are typical rom-com archetypes, but their male counterparts live in a way where truth talks and bullshit walks (I also identify with them more than the females). Either way, this leads to some excellent one-liners.
I suppose Warne is the more blunt of the two, and according to modern standards he would be somewhat of a brute. Rom-coms don’t have guys who walk around threatening to break necks and saying you’d “sock her once a day whether it’s coming to her or not.” 1934 was definitely another time.
However, what’s so funny about Warne is that he makes threats but you know he would never carry them out. He is too busy being generous and accommodating to Ellie, with the occasional bout of tough love. It’s also apparent that he’s a complete goner within a few hours, which boggles my mind every time. He hardly knows her and they have shown nothing but contempt for each other. What an ass-backwards way to fall for someone.
What’s entertaining about Night is that Ellie and Peter’s bickering makes them attracted to each other, as well as their know-how and teamwork. Both of them struggle with this attraction in different ways, and in spite of driving each other crazy their struggles are entertaining to watch. One of the film’s funniest scenes is when a furious Peter admits he is love with Ellie while being interrogated by her father:
Alexander Andrews: Do you love her?
Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!
(storms out of room, slams door)
For its time Night was considered risque since Gable took off his shirt and Colbert hitchhikes by showing some leg, but these details fade into the background. The real foreground is the writing and performances. The dialogue is straight forward and incredibly sharp, with both characters giving the other hell.
To make things clear, this isn’t my kind of relationship, but like I mentioned in my review of Jane Eyre, who am I to judge what works for others? Near the end of the film Ellie weeps while she admits she loves Peter. Why? Because he keeps her in line:
“He says that I’m spoiled and selfish and pampered and thoroughly insincere… Oh, he’s marvelous!”
To put it simply: these characters are why I own this movie. There’s nothing more I can say. For some reason arguing and consistent acts of kindness make Ellie Andrews and Peter Warne one of my favorite screen couples of all time.
I have no problem watching their journey over and over again.