Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It Happened One Night (1934)

     About a month ago, I wrote about the movie “Up” in honor of Valentine’s Day. After that was posted, I thought of another, much older movie that I could have written about, but I guess I can just do it now. This is “It Happened One Night”, one of the first great romantic comedies of all time, directed by the great Catholic filmmaker Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”). I saw this for the first time last summer, and I’m so impressed that after almost eighty years, this movie still has an impact on audiences.

     “It Happened One Night” introduces us to Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), the wealthy daughter of a wealthy ship captain (Walter Connolly) who disapproves of her marriage to a fortune-hunting man. After an argument between Ellie and her father, she runs away to New York City, where on a bus she comes across a news reporter named Peter Warne (Clark Gable). And of course, since Warne is anxious to get an exclusive story on why the famous Ellie Andrews is running away, he gives her two options: give him a story and he will help her get to her husband, or don’t give him a story and he’ll send her back to her father and collect reward money.

     So pretty soon, Ellie is following Peter around on a bus to New York. And since this is a romantic comedy, they of course get into some humorous situations early on. One of the most famous is when the two of them stop at a hotel one night and pretend to be husband and wife to avoid suspicion. Before going to bed, Peter puts a curtain between their two beds, declaring, “Behold the walls of Jericho!” Later, in another famous scene, as Peter and Ellie have started to hitchhike, Peter is unsuccessful in getting a car to stop for them by sticking his thumb out—but when Ellie lifts her skirt up a little showing off her leg, a car brakes in front of them and stops for them. (This was brilliant comedy in 1934, by the way. Especially compared to the lame rom-coms out today. In my opinion.)

     But eventually, Peter starts looking out for Ellie in a very unique way. When a passenger on the bus recognizes her and wants a part of the reward, Peter threatens him to quit thinking about it (and that’s when they decide to leave the bus and start hitchhiking). It seems that as Peter and Ellie has grown closer together in those several days together, he has started protecting her, not only as a friend but maybe even as more than that. And Ellie starts feeling the same way about Peter, confessing to him one night that she longs to go with him wherever he goes.

     But the next morning, Peter’s car is gone, and Ellie is kicked out of the motel she is staying in. Ellie, thinking that Peter has abandoned her, gets in contact with her father, who allows her to marry her husband again (in an actual, formal ceremony). In reality, Peter went to his former editor to get money to marry Ellie, and as he drives back to meet her, he passes her on the road on the way to her father. Eventually, Ellie tells her father the whole story about her and Peter, and eventually, Peter comes to their house, presumably to obtain the reward money. But all he asks for is to be paid for gas. Mr. Andrews is confused:

ANDREWS: You’re peculiar, chap!

PETER: Yeah, we’ll go into that some other time.

ANDREWS: The average man would go after the reward. …Do you mind if I ask you a question frankly? Do you love my daughter?

PETER: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!

ANDREWS: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?

PETER: YES! But don’t hold that against me; I’m a little screwy myself!

     And with that, Peter storms out of the Andrews’ property. Ellie sees him leave and tells her father not to mention him again. But at the wedding, as the two of them walk down the aisle, Ellie’s father whispers:

ANDREWS: You’re a sucker to go through with this. That guy Warne is okay. He didn’t want the reward. All he asked for was $39.60, what he spent on you. He said it was a matter of principle… He loves you, Ellie. He told me so.

     And before she can say “I do”, Ellie makes her decision: she runs from the wedding and meets up with Peter in Michigan. And the movie ends with the two of them in a cabin, with a marriage license, a rope, a blanket, and a trumpet. And that night, the trumpet blows, and the walls of Jericho fall.

     (By the way, on a sidenote: does this ending of the woman finding out her lover's true intentions and then running away from a wedding sound familiar at all? If you thought of "Spaceballs", you'd be right. That's right, the ending of "Spaceballs" is a total rip-off of "It Happened One Night". I thought that was kinda funny.)

     A year ago about this time, I talked about another love story called “The Quiet Man”, and the more I think about it, the more I see similarities between the two movies. The man and woman start out in disagreement, unwilling to admit their love for one another. There’s a misunderstanding in the end that separates them, but eventually they get back together. And regardless of how much money the woman has, the man loves her anyway.

     An idea emphasized throughout the Bible is how temporary wealth on Earth is. We can do all we can just to obtain money or property, but in the end, we won’t be able to save it in Heaven. There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes where Solomon says that in addition to everything else under the sun, money is meaningless: “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” (5:10)

     Peter Warne wasn’t interested in Ellie Andrews’ monetary reward at all—in the end, even though a misunderstanding made him think less of her, he still loved her. And I feel like that message, that love is more important than money, is one of the reasons why “It Happened One Night” is still regarded as a great romantic comedy. And my prayer for you this week is that you will put aside the desires of this world and decide to love: love God and love others.

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