Ep 2: It Happened One Night

There is lots of love from both of us for this black & white classic that should be used as one of the golden standards for storytelling. There was some nitpicking on character arc but mostly just a lot of gushing. Get the podcast: Listen here at PopD | Go to iTunes

Story Analysis & Ratings:

Lucy says: 5 Pops ~ It Happened One Night was one of the first black and white movies I saw, and it was so good, it got me into classic films. What can I say? It’s a gateway drug. When I was younger, I loved it because it had romance and humor, and really, that’s all I need. Looking at it now from the perspective of a romantic comedy writer, I find that not only does it stand up, but it utilizes such eloquent skill in the storytelling that it’s an ideal movie to study for any writer.

Except for the fact that Ellie’s father is uneven. Jenny thinks he’s fine, but she’s wrong. Lucy’s rating breakdown: Romance: 5, Comedy: 5, Structure: 5

Jenny says: 5 Pops ~ I was prepared to take this movie apart and find all the flaws, but it’s a damn near perfect film with many brilliant narrative moves and real genius in the character development and the escalation of the romance plot. During the podcast, Lucy and I analyzed the heroine, the hero, some of the supporting characters including the antagonist, looked at some of the powerful narrative devices, and then talked about the way the comedy and the romance were essential to each other, but it was pretty much a love fest, no carping here. (Lucy thinks the father’s character arc is a character violation but she’s wrong.)

It Happened One Night set the bar for romantic comedy, and it set it high. Frank Capra is a genius, Gable and Colbert deserve their lasting fame, and I love Roscoe Karns (aka Oscar Shapeley). Jenny’s rating breakdown: Romance: 5, Comedy: 5, Structure: 5

Blog Poll Rating: 4.6 Pops

Movie Info:

Story: A spoiled heiress runs away from her controlling father and meets a cynical newsman who’s just in it for the story. Release Date: February 23, 1934 Director: Frank Capra Writer: Robert Riskin (screenplay) Samuel Hopkins Adams (story). More info at IMDb.

57 thoughts on “Ep 2: It Happened One Night

  1. I also gave it five popcorn kernals. The humor was great and the way both actors played off each other was terrific. I loved the sly humor, like when Clark G’s character placed his hand on the bus seat when he knew Claudette C. was coming back to sit down. His reaction to her stockings etc. being placed on the walls of Jericho was great. : ) He didn’t have to say a word. And the ending…perfect. Loved the trumpet.

    Not certain about the father’s arc. Did he even have one? He went from overprotective to encouraging her to run away with a stranger, so he was still controlling her. Hmmmm? Maybe he’d just been waiting for the right person to come along and stand up to him and he had an awakening? Or it was total relief that she wasn’t in love with creepy guy? But yeah, there was a bit of sense of disbelief that he could alter his basic personality so quickly.

    You can watch this story and see how many ideas have come out of it, for book and movie, over the years. My friend wanted to see Sex and the City 2 for her birthday. Terrible writing, hated it. : ) But they included the trailer from this movie when the MC’s were watching an old B&W movie in a hotel. Then when Carrie needed a cab in Abu Dhabi she did a re-enactment of the skirt lifting scene. But she couldn’t hold a candle to Claudette.

    Snacks: 1 glass of very cold BV Coastal Pinot Noir and a bowl of Trader Joes 50% less fat popcorn. And it felt way too decadent to be lying around snacking and watching a movie at 5pm Pacific time. See you at 4pm next week. : )

  2. I remember seeing this movie a long time ago when I was a teenager and liking it, but as an adult I loved it. Pretty terrific all around, and I agree with the 5 stars. The dad character did seem uneven to me. He went from ultra-bossy (even slapping her, which I know wouldn’t be considered ghastly for the time period) to being a teddy bear. The fact that he couldn’t find his daughter and worried about her probably scared the bejesus out of him, softening him somewhat, but I would have liked to have seen 1 tiny bit of something else to make his arc more complete.

  3. Oh, BTW, could we discuss the movies major turning points, please? I think I know them, just want to see if they match up. ; )

  4. Did you ever figure out which Susan Elizabeth Phillips book Jenny was thinking of in the podcast? I’d love to know the answer. It’s been driving me nuts thinking about it all morning.

  5. 5 kernels. Frank Capra and Billy WIlder movies are the best. Yes, can we discuss the turning points, do they match with mine. Popcorn Dialogues is a master class with snacks. Old fashioned hot butter popcorn and water. Boring, but works for me.

  6. Well, I love old movies, and found this movie was fine, but really, if the criteria for being funny is actually laughing out loud, this movie didn’t do it for me. It was amusing and I stayed interested, but I didn’t so much as snicker once. It’s obviously not a drama by any stretch, but laugh-out-loud it wasn’t.

    The father doesn’t have an arc so much as a toggle switch.

    I now understand why the sales of men’s undershirts plummeted after this movie came out.

    Off to listen to the podcast. Just finished watching the movie and wanted to see what the written comments were first.

  7. How do the Popcorn Ratings work? When I click on that link, I see that the comments are closed. I really enjoyed the movie. I noticed some of the errors, which I now see are mentioned on the imdb link we were so kindly offered (e.g. Ellie calling Peter by name before asking what his name was, and her uneven movement when he is removing his clothes). Using Twitter with everyone as we watch is fun. Jenny & Lucy, thanks for all of this, including your written comments, and the podcast, which I will check out now.

  8. You put your ratings here; the Popcorn Ratings page is just to show you the criteria we’re using. And really, the ratings are just our way of summing up what we think.

  9. I don’t do twitter and don’t want to, except last night I wanted to. Ah, well. Just discovered the podcast up above. Hope it wasn’t there this morning when I checked in. I do admit to being a bit bleary eyed… blame it on the wine. Now that I’ve listened, and heard you talk about the narrative, and about the motifs, and turning points, I think I’ll watch it all over again. Thanks so much for doing this, it’s extremely helpful.

    And yep, Lora, I agree on the gams. : )

  10. You know, we did laugh out loud several times. But then, we’re easy laughers here.
    I think a lot of Dad’s arc is in his increasing panic and then his realization when she comes home that she’s grown up. Plus when she got in real trouble, she called him, so that must have eased his mind. I continue to insist that there’s an arc there.

  11. Roben, you can absolutely discuss the turning points. I can’t do them for you because I’d have to watch the movie again and I’m slammed. But by now, you can probably do turning points in your sleep, so have at it.

  12. So, last night was my first ever viewing of It Happened One Night. Using the rating system stated on this blog, I’d give it 3.5 kernels. It was nice but I only chuckled on occasion. I laughed harder over some of the tweets. Could the love of the film have anything to do with nostalgia or maybe I’m being to critical?

    Still need to listen to the podcast.

  13. Jenny, thanks for clarifying about the popcorn ratings. I thought it was going to be a poll. It might be interesting to rate the movies overall, and maybe on some criteria, such as how funny, how romantic, etc.

  14. I was watching the movie by myself and I laughed out loud 3 or 4 times. The one I laughed hardest at was after Peter threatened Shapely (quite convincingly) and then tried to spit all manly-like and just ended up drooling on his own shoulder. BAHA!

  15. Okay, so I listened to the podcast (which was great, by the way), and here’s why I’m on Lucy’s side regarding the father. Jenny’s points about the dad’s emotional state while Ellie was missing, and his relief once she calls are valid, but what makes it uneven is how he basically turns on a dime once she calls. We see *so* much of him trying to track down his daughter and how relentless he is about it and we see a lot of him trying to convince his daughter that she doesn’t have to go through with the wedding, and that whatever she chooses is all right with him, that the transitional bits where he throws out one line about how scared he was and the one line about “you’ve changed,” isn’t sufficient enough to process his completely different attitude toward her.

    Jenny, I loved your comments about the narrative devices, particularly the transportation. The hero and heroine traveled by bus and car (and on foot), but the father had a yacht, then took a plane home (which you could hear flew over the motor court that first morning when she woke up so bright eyed and bushy tailed), and the fiance was an aviator. The h/h took a slow journey through the real world, while her father and fiance stayed in their isolated, privileged worlds by flying over it and when they did travel by car, it was still isolated (surrounded by police on motorcycles) and faster than anyone else could travel by road.

  16. BJ: Right, it is a poll. It’s been a rough week here so we’re not on top of our game. Poll will be up shortly.

    Tabs, the book was Fancy Pants.

    Oooh, Rox, love that extension of the vehicle stuff. I hadn’t seen any of that. Thank you.

    But you and Lani are wrong about Dad.

    Off to put the poll I promised and then forgot about. ARGH.

    Edited to Add: The Ratings Poll for It Happened One Night is up. And thank you for the reminder, BJ.

  17. I really enjoyed listening to the podcast. You both are very talented (we already knew that) and the podcast was both fun and thought provoking.

  18. I’m pretty sure the SEP book you referenced is Fancy Pants. It’s the first one of the “golf” series.

  19. Five pops on all counts. I had forgotten just how funny this movie is. The dialogue is terrific.

    I agree with Jenny about Ellie’s father. The character of Ellie’s father seemed pretty consistent to me. In the beginning, he IS high-handed, but he is trying to protect Ellie from an attention-seeking fortune hunter. (Even Peter can see that King Westley is a “front-page idiot” and that Ellie is better off without him.)

    By the end of the film, Ellie’s father still wants to protect her from the self-centered fortune hunter, but this time he persuades her to stop the wedding herself rather than forcing her hand. His motivation is the same, but his methods have changed as a result of Ellie’s disappearance.

    Ellie’s father’s encounter with Peter has shown him that Peter loves his daughter, not her money. All Peter wants is $39.60 for out-of-pocket expenses — and it’s clear he’s only demanding that paltry amount because he believes Ellie duped him into falling for her. This is a sharp contrast to King Westley, who allows himself to be bought off — not to mention that he was content to sit on his duff in NY and wait for Ellie to show up.

    That contrast makes it seem more plausible that Ellie’s father would help her ditch the no-good suitor (whom he has never liked) to elope with a worthy stranger who has won his respect.

    I really enjoyed the podcast and learned a lot from it. Thanks, Jenny and Lucy.

  20. I just saw this for the first time all the way through a couple weeks ago, and instantly loved it. After listening to the podcast I just HAD to rewatch the movie (lucky for me it’s still Watch Instantly at Netflix!).

    It definitely holds up to repeat viewings.

    And I am so totally in love with Clark Gable as Peter. One scene I loved that I don’t think you mentioned was when he’s drunk and his cronies walk him to the bus in a procession calling him the King with one ripping a newspaper as confetti. I loved that bit. I wonder if it’s a subtle jab at his nickname as “The King of Hollywood”? That’s another really subtle moment of character building too, because it shows his fellow reporters admire and respect him as well.

  21. I’m behind and I don’t tweet, but I’ve seen the movie and listened to part one of the podcast, so …

    Before I forget, the scene in the motorcourt when they are fooling the detectives really made me think of Faking It, and now I have to reread that to see if Jenny references this movie.

    Okay – Ellie isn’t real likeable right off because her world has been removed from reality. Frankly, I think she’s just been bore out of her gourd all her life and she acts out to keep sane. She isn’t cruel to people; thoughtless sometimes, but it’s not deliberate. The thing with the bus wasn’t about her being rich and special. She asked nicely, after all.

  22. Peter, I think, was an idealist who became jaded. You see him take care of people who need it – he was the first one to get to the woman on the bus, and the only one who paid attention to the kid. The people he is hard on are the ones who can take it. And I think the tough talk – and his brilliant boozy scene on the phone – is an act to hide the fact that he’s really a romantic.

  23. I thought it interesting that in the podcast Jenny talks about Peter and money in connection with ego; Lucy uses the word principle. I agree with Lucy, btw. You look at the times, and back then the man was supposed to be the provider. Peter was a product of those times, and also did not want to be in the same category as King. He was going to her with money, not for money.

    Her father – well, this was clearly not the first stunt she had pulled and, say what you will but she would have been with King if her father hadn’t kidnapped her. I think he didn’t know quite what to do with her. And he did care. He goes from “she’ll be okay” to “she’ll be okay, right?” to “I’ve never been so scared”. And I think hat was arc, not because he changed but because he increasingly showed his worry. He’s a tough, big money guy, but this is what his daughter reduces him to.

  24. Loved this movie all over again. Maybe not laugh out loud funny all the way through but the dialogue and subtle humor – like Roben said:

    I loved the sly humor, like when Clark G’s character placed his hand on the bus seat when he knew Claudette C. was coming back to sit down.

    – this is the kind of stuff that’s written for people who think.

    Verona mentioned the early scene where Gable is followed by his drinking buddies after he quits his job as a reference to his “King of Hollywood” status. I think there could be some of that, but I think it’s the second half of the bookend referring to the previous scene with King Wesley. This way, we as the viewers have it in our minds that they can, and are, both Kings in one way, shape, or form. And, of course, as Peter’s Friends say, “Long Live the King.”

    The banter is fantastic and it’s great that it’s not sexiest. She insults his ego so he insults her’s. How many women actually get accused of having an ego? And there’s the great line about how he likes privacy when he retires because he’s delicate. Of course, we know he’s not but it makes the lines better somehow.

    I was making notes about the community aspect of the bus ride just as Jenny’s tweet came through! There is such camaraderie in their travel arrangements. Jenny’s comments in the podcast discussed the isolation of the father and King Wesley’s choices vs. the bus/ motor inns that Peter and Ellie have to use. Sort of like the not-so-subtle dig at the aristocracy in Anna Karenina, but that was not a comedy obviously.

    One thing I kept coming back to was the fact that Peter could do anything. He sang, he doctors wounds, he digs the bus out, he carries women across rivers, he cooks – he’s a provider. But he’s so paternalistic. Clearly very much a product of the time period here – until you get to the issue of trust and respect that Jenny and Lucy mentioned in the podcast. Is the issue of respect the only thing that makes him different from Ellie’s father?

    I wonder about Ellie’s mother. What happened to her? Is there something in why she’s not in the story that has caused the dad to be soooo overprotective? We can guess – flu outbreak, died in childbirth, ran off to Paris with her own version of King Wesley, etc. If so, that layer would’ve been helpful to see, and if we had known, I think we would’ve been able to see his arc easier.

    Well, I think that’s most of what I thought about. What a great movie! It was nice, too, to be able to hear all of the dialogue. Movies now have soundtracks through them from start to finish and these classic movies may have had their ‘sing a song’ moments but they weren’t scored in the same way films are today. It was a nice change.

  25. I like what Roben and Veronica said about the subtle humor in this movie, that it’s for people who think. That’s good. It’s also what’s missing from a lot of contemporary comedy which is more in your face. And the best of that is still really funny; but I like the subtle kind, humor that is set up and strings you along. The bus seat was like that. First he competes with the newspapers, then he competes with the driver, then her, then she competes with him, the snoring rider and so on until it comes full circle. All the rest is a set up for his reaction to her snuggled up against him.

  26. Next week is Bringing Up Baby which is really farce, not comedy, so subtle humor will take a vacation. It’ll be interesting to look at the two kinds of humor, see how they work with the romance plot, and what you all have to say about it later.

  27. I’ve come here before listening to the podcast so maybe it’s discussed there, but I just wanted to mention the line: “What she needs is a guy who’ll take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not.”

    Yes I know it’s of its time and I would have been okay with it had it come earlier in the movie (like Ellie’s father’s slap), but as part of Peter’s romantic declaration? No.

  28. This is completely off-topic, but I have to ask … there’s a word Jenny used about 5 times in this podcast which I have never heard before, and I cannot figure out how to spell it to look it up. Ambilicious? Anbalicious? Anvil-luscious? I have no idea. Jenny, what’s that word, and what does it mean?

  29. I was thinking about the suitcases this morning, which Jenny mentioned as a narrative device but wasn’t sure what they actually mean in the movie. I’m thinking they might mean power.

    Ellie gets her suitcase stolen without even realizing it and Peter tries to get it back for her– so Ellie loses her power and Peter attempts to give it back to her (but fails, this time).

    Peter yanks Ellie’s purse away and looks in it, then tells her she’s on a budget, so now they’re sharing the power– he’s treating that purse like it’s his!

    The guy in the car steals their suitcase but Peter chases him down to get it back– he will not give up the power again!

    And then he sells his suitcase to get gas money. Now he LOVES Ellie and he’s willing to give up power for a chance at her love.

    What do you think? Does that work? Maybe not quite, since I don’t really see where they get the suitcases back at the end… But maybe power isn’t so important by the end.

  30. Man, Merriam-Webster doesn’t recognize it as a word. I’m the same as you, Sonja, I understood what she meant in context but trying to put a definition to it on its own isn’t working for me. And the stupid dictionary is being stupid.

  31. Sonja, excellent idea of the suitcase meaning power.

    My dictionary doesn’t have the word either but I think anvilicious means not subtle, so anvilicious humor would be when they try to be funny and hit you over the head with it. Or something like that.

  32. Lucy/Lani made it up and we’ve been using it ever since. Basically, it’s a move in a story that is in itself very obvious that is then emphasized or commented on by another character. So we’ve seen her tremendous growth over three days, and then he says, “Ellie, you’ve changed,” and your first reaction is “Duh.” Looking back on it, I think the line was needed to explain his subsequent change in behavior.

  33. I like the way it works, Sonja, but I don’t see the suitcase as a power object. It contains pieces of their lives, so I can see it as an extension of them, but I don’t see it as a metaphor for power the way money or cars or guns can work as metaphor for power. But I think you’re dead on about the way they’re used. I like the juxtaposition you’ve pointed out about the first case being stolen but the second recovered.

  34. In the podcast, Jenny and Lucy discussed the issue of money, and how with Ellie’s father and King and the reward money, it was all really big, really round numbers. But with Peter and the whole road trip thing, the numbers are small and very specific. It’s the whole money/class distinction thing again, isn’t it? Because to Peter and the others on the road, and before very long Ellie as well, the pennies count. Ellie wants to buy chocolate on the bus, and it doesn’t even occur to her that she’s broke, that money won’t be there when she wants it later. Not because she’s spoiled, but because she’s never had to think about the pennies before. There are worlds you really don’t understand until you are living in them. So the money thing was an excellent device for pointing out the differences between the two worlds without making them either objections of scorn or pity. It’s just different.

  35. Pieces of their lives, yes. Ellie is careless with hers; Peter chases after his. Yeah, Peter grabs her purse and counts out her money, but she really WAS being careless with it. She lost her suitcase, would have lost her ticket if he hadn’t found it, paid little attention to making her remaining cash last. For all her spunk, she was also foolish in many ways, childish even. At that point, if Peter hadn’t been looking after her, she would have been in an even bigger jam. So Peter isn’t the villain here. But Ellie never whines, except about the carrots; she learns. That’s what redeems her.

  36. I found this on wikipedia and if it’s true it’s just kinda sad

    On December 15, 1996, Clark Gable’s Oscar was auctioned off to Steven Spielberg for $607,500; Spielberg promptly donated the statuette to the Motion Picture Academy.[18] On June 9, the following year, Colbert’s Oscar was offered for auction by Christie’s. No bids were made for it.

  37. If no bids were made, it was probably because the reserve was too high, not because of Colbert herself. If that makes you feel better.

  38. That was one thing that stuck with me, McB, how infantilized she was by everyone. Considering how much pressure there was on her to be a child, she did damn well.

  39. If no bids were made, it was probably because the reserve was too high, not because of Colbert herself. If that makes you feel better.

    that came to my mind while i was out later on. i’m really hoping that was the case because whether or not anyone wanted to do this movie or enjoyed the work while they were doing it, it’s just darn good and it makes my brain feel happy.

  40. She did VERY well. As I said before, I think she was just really, really bored. Smart people with no outlet often get themselves into trouble. The bit with Peter going through her money … he didn’t just say “I’ll take care of your money,” he said “YOU have to watch your money, YOU can’t afford the chocolate.” She needed that. And he could have just paid for stuff and left her in the dark about their roadtrip finances – which is probably how her father would have handled it. But he didn’t; he told her every step of the way how much everything cost and how they had to make THEIR money last. That was treating her like an equal, a partner, and expecting her to act like one. It was probably the first time anyone had expected her to think, and she lived up to that expectation, to that respect he was showing her. That was her arc, really.

    Peter didn’t really arc, you’re right about that. He remained pretty much the same.

  41. Oh, I’d missed that, that’s excellent, about him not taking the money to handle it but telling her she had to handle it. That’s a great, great move.

  42. Didn’t get to see the movie until Sunday, and listened to the podcast last night. Wow! This was great. First, I must confess that I had made it to age 40 without ever having seen a movie in black and white. Yes, I can hear the gasps of horror and outrage from here. For me, movies are social events, but when I’m just looking for entertainment I read. A lot.

    The movie itself was fabulous. I did laugh out loud at least a few times, definitely when Clark Gable pulled his “delicate” act the first night in the motor park. What was even more fabulous than the movie was the podcast. I made lots of notes, some of which were reminders of what Lucy and Jenny had to say, but most of which were ideas for my own work that these thoughts generated.

    Without the podcast, I would never have found the turning points, although now they seem incredibly obvious. The comments about how to have a supporting character fill more than one role to reduce clutter, while at the same time allowing more emotional investment in that character was very helpful for me. Having the same setting before and after arcs as a way to emphasize change was another lightbulb moment.

    Using the movies as instructional tools was a stroke of genius. I would not be getting much from just watching the movies, and I wouldn’t get nearly as much just out of the podcast, but the two together are going to make a huge difference in my writing.

    Thanks for another wonderful public service from Jenny and Lucy!

  43. I watched the movie on Sunday. I laughed out loud a few times. I loved the scene where he had her hold the suitcase while he slapped her on the butt. Something she definitely deserved.
    I forgot how much I liked this movie. I would agree with Jenny ( not just for suck up points either) that there is an arc to the father. He learns I think that he does better by letting her go. He finally asks her what she wants. He has been telling her, her whole life what to do. I liked that he helped her out too. He adds a lot to the comedy of it I think. The scene on the yacht where he holds out the meat to her tells her to just sniff it.
    I also agree that this set the standard pretty high. I remember my mom telling me about how scandalized everyone was because Clark Gable shows his naked chest.

    Thanks for doing this. I am having fun!

  44. The beauty of this movie is that all of this stuff is subtle.

    This was fun. I’m a fan of old movies and really looking forward to Baby. It will be interesting to compare how farce was done then with how Hollywood would ruin it today. Yeah, I’m cynical.

  45. I wonder if losing luggage has to do with liminality stuff? Travelling means being in the place of Neither Here Nor There, and if you try to anchor yourself with possessions that reinforce identity or status, then you can’t be transformed. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the theft of Ellie’s suitcase shifts her towards an alliance with a man she’d have otherwise avoided, and I think it’s cool that Peter, her guide, is a newspaper man. Tricksters are thieves, and gods of travel and the crossroads; they’re communicators and psychopomps (guides of the soul), too, and all of these things show up in the story in one form or another.

    Thanks for the podcast Jenny and Lucy–I learned SO much. And I’m really looking forward to Bringing Up Baby:

    “Now, it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but, well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.”

    I love, love, love that line.

  46. Thanks, Jenny. And please forgive the babbling about Trickster mythos; I know you’re not exactly unfamiliar with the archetype!

  47. No, it’s all good. It’s a discussion here and it’s a good idea to put the idea out there fully formed and not assume anything. And I really did not see the Trickster in Peter. I saw him in Davy Dempsey, but not Peter Warne.

  48. I hope I’m not too late – I was out of town last weekend and only now just had a chance to watch the flick.

    **** (4) pops. It’s a fabulous movie, but even though I grinned a lot I didn’t laugh out loud. I actually think I enjoyed it more for having listened to the podcast first. I didn’t honestly think I would enjoy it based on the trailer and the comments here.

    Jenny, I totally agree with you about her father. He worked for me. And frankly, in his place, I would have smacked her, too, at the beginning. She was behaving like a spoiled brat. And the look on his face when she flees the alter is priceless.

    Anyhoo… lots of fun! Can’t wait now for Baby. 🙂

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