Hitchhiking Down the Highway of Love

It Happened One Night (1934)

illustration by Brianna Ashby
If, in 2013, the daughter of a multimillionaire ran away after eloping with a famous aviator (what is the modern equivalent of a famous aviator? A travel show host? Anthony Bourdain?), she would book a flight on Virgin America and spend the journey staring at the tiny computer in her hand and the satellite tv inches from her face. She would fly right over the road, miss all the majesty and mustachioed dreamboats that non-urban America has to offer, and be cornered by paparazzi at the other end. Still, the thrill of escape is a timeless one.

For a 75-year-old movie whose biggest plot point (and joke) hinges on the sexual inexperience of its central female character, It Happened One Night is still remarkably fresh. Technically, “it” happens over the course of at least four nights, and is rather hard to define. A plucky heiress and a boozy newsman fall in love? An opportunistic reporter manipulates a naive young woman? Two attractive strangers team up for a whirlwind romance along the eastern seaboard? Whatever “it” is, it set the standard for thousands of road movies to follow: unlikely travelling companions, madcap adventure, and the redemptive (and often seductive) power of the road.

It Happened One Night begins with Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a sheltered rich girl who runs away from her father when he disapproves of her marriage to famous aviator King Westley. (I will not spend any time discussing the non-character that is King Westley, save to say that King Westley is the greatest name ever for a famous aviator and/or a Wheaton Terrier.) Ellie is spotted in a Greyhound station by Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a mustachioed dreamboat newspaperman who recognizes the runaway heiress as the headline of his life. Their first exchange makes clear what will follow: “That upon which you sit is mine,” says Peter, gesturing vaguely towards her bus seat, or perhaps something else. “I beg your pardon,” says Ellie, clutching her purse. They hate each other from the start, so clearly we know that they’re bound to fall in love. Eventually Peter reveals that he knows who Ellie is, and promises to help her get to New York if she gives him an exclusive story. If she refuses, he’s going to turn her in and claim the $10,000 reward. Blackmail: turning adversaries into lovers since 1934.

While romantic comedy surely existed long before Shakespeare ever set Benedick and Beatrice at odds, It Happened One Night is nonetheless considered one of the very first modern rom-coms. It’s also widely acknowledged to be the first-ever “road movie,” as well as one of the earliest screwball comedies. Thus, it’s fairly impossible to watch the film now without comparing it to everything it engendered. What was groundbreaking in 1934 might seem rather clichéd now, but it was this movie that started it all: the meet-cute on public transportation; the couple who bickers endlessly until they fall in love; the wacky minor characters we meet along the way; the impromptu singalong that unites a motley crew of travelers. On the second day of the Miami-to-New York journey, a traveling band plays “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” in the back of the bus, while passengers trade off singing verses. At first Peter and Ellie just listen, then slowly they start to mouth the chorus, and finally the bus driver join in, too. It’s a delightful scene, a lingering glance at road trip camaraderie removed almost entirely from the actual plot. Personally, I can’t watch it without thinking of William and Penny singing “Tiny Dancer” on the Stillwater tour bus, but your reference may depend on your particular taste: do you flash to Harold and Kumar wailing “Hold On” as they drive towards White Castle? The Rockford Peaches singing their own praises as “members of the All-American League?” The Bellas smoothing over inter-acapella group conflict with an impromptu-yet-perfectly-arranged “Party in the USA”? Road trips demand singalongs, and we’ve seen this scene a hundred times, but everything It Happened One Night recalls is everything it actually pioneered.

Perhaps the most familiar cliché in the film—and the most appealing to a certain type of audience member (namely, me)—is the dominant but kind man taking the clever but sheltered girl under his wing. Peter Warne loves the sound of his own voice. Over the course of their northward journey, he lectures Ellie on travel etiquette, money handling, how to properly dunk a donut, appropriate piggyback ride technique, and, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, the undressing habits of the modern American male. Peter is a scoundrel, a blowhard, and a bossy son of a gun, but he’s also Clark Gable in high-waisted pants and an unbuttoned shirt. His air of hyper-masculinity is tempered by the fact that Peter is an inherently decent man. He squires Ellie cross-country, looks out for her at every turn, and never makes an untoward move. Sure, his kindness is self-serving, at least at first. “You’re just a headline to me,” he says. But his actions belie his decency; he looks out for Ellie even as he is using her.

When Ellie is approached on the bus by a sleazy traveling salesman named Shapely (“when a cold mama gets hot, boy how she sizzles!”), Peter stands up and demands to sit next to his “wife.” They go on to play married at a roadside motel, enacting the classic “man and woman fake relationship for mutual gain and inevitably fall in love” routine. Think Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds inThe Proposal, or John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga in The Sure Thing. Of course in 1934, it wasn’t classic yet. It was scandalous to have a married young woman and a single, older man share a room at a budget inn. Good thing they maintain propriety by dividing the room with a blanket on a rope (“the walls of Jericho,” Peter says).

Claudette Colbert’s Ellie is an archetype, too: the sharp, independent, yet vulnerable woman who lets her guard down for the right man. She starts off an entitled princess, but as we get to know her better, we see that she’s not just some spoiled brat letting men guide her through life. She’s clever, funny, independent, and as turned on by a little domestic role play as the next girl. This is every role Meg Ryan played between 1989 and 1995, only less cute, and more self-aware. “This is the first time I’ve ever been alone with a man,” Ellie tells Peter that first night at the motel. Then, sarcastically: “It’s a wonder I’m not panic-stricken.”

In the end, Ellie and Peter’s mutual cleverness and good intentions are what keep us invested in their story. He’s an opportunistic rascal, but he’s not a creep. She’s an entitled brat, but she’s not a fool. They’re evenly matched, intellectually and emotionally. They argue so astutely, with such passion and playfulness, that the sex is bound to be good. Of course, given the era, the sex is bound to be off-screen. We don’t even get to see our couple kiss. Peter and Ellie get together, as we know from the start they must, but according to Hollywood legend, scheduling conflicts kept Gable and Colbert from set when the couples’ final reunion was filmed. Instead of seeing the climactic kiss we would expect from a modern road-screwball-rom-com, we see an exterior shot of another roadside motel, and hear a trumpet blast that lets us know the Walls of Jericho are a-tumblin’ down.

So what happens to Peter and Ellie after the screen fades to black? Are they Harry and Sally being interviewed on a couch, or Benjamin and Elaine in the back of the bus? Peter is still a newspaperman with a drinking problem, Ellie is still a socialite who’s never lived outside her family home, and eventually they have to leave that motel. As Sandra tells Keanu at the end of that other great bus-based rom-com of our time, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances never last.” And, as Before Midnight so deftly demonstrates, young people in love can become older people in stasis. Relationships change, and sometimes the pair whose playful arguments end in passionate sex becomes the pair whose knock-down drag-out fights leave them wasted and lonely in a shared bed.

Not all film couplings beg follow-up, but I’d love to check in with Peter and Ellie after the honeymoon wears off. It Happened One Morning: years after their impromptu wedding, Ellen and Peter take a day trip to Massachusetts to tour boarding schools with their daughter, and in the close quarters of a commuter train we see their marriage straining at the seams. It Happened One Mid-afternoon: years after their divorce, Ellen and Peter reunite at their daughter’s graduation from Pembroke, where they bicker through the commencement address and exchange sad smiles over cocktails at the reception. Despite their delightful start, I don’t foresee much chance of happily ever after for these two, but at least they had a few great nights.

And they’ll always have the Greyhound bus.