Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is perhaps the funniest movie from the 1930s by today’s standards. While I can’t say I’m an expert on films from the Great Depression, I do have experience with certain classics from the time, such as the movies of Charlie Chaplin. Unfortunately, my experience with movies from the early film era leave me with the stereotype that they will be boring, especially for a semi-sophisticated teenager from the technology era nearly a century later. One of the strangest things I noticed while watching this movie on my TV (not on my small computer screen with bad quality headphones) was the lack of music and sound effects that would ordinarily fill up the spaces between actions. This great deal of silence was understandable, due to the transition from silent films to what were known as talking films.
A unique, and useful, part of It Happened One Night is the beginning. Many movies drop the audience straight into the story, which is exciting, and serves as a good hook, but doesn’t introduce much backstory. It Happened One Night, however, begins with the events that introduce the reasons for the stories. The first scene is of Ellen “Ellie” Andrews running away from her father after going on somewhat of a hunger strike because he annulled her marriage to King Westley. Not only does this explain the reason the plot even takes place (that Ellie wants to reach New York without being caught by her father so as to reunite with King Westley), but it also introduces a vital character who is representative of the old ideas of Ellie that she wants to keep and adopt back into her life, but which she ends up replacing with new, unique ideas. Further, it is a perfect demonstration of the elements of Ellie’s life that she wants to escape: the restriction placed on her by her father, and the actions she is limited to because of him. The second scene shows Ellie buying her bus ticket to New York, which is her entrance into her special world. Secondarily, it shows Peter Warne, a reporter, and one of the main characters that assist Ellie along her journey, getting fired from his job at the newspaper he writes for. This, too, is his push across the threshold, as it ends up giving him a reason for following Ellie (the story she will get him) other than that he later falls in love with her. The characters’ backstory is vital to their later roles in the plotline.
From the beginning of her journey, Ellie’s primary goal is to evade her father and his detectives as she travels through the country. Of course, towards the end of the movie, when she turns herself in to her father because of King Westley’s request for her to return and her father’s support of her marriage, her main goal has changed. Especially in her final scene with Peter before he returns to New York to tell his story and return with money to propose to Ellie with, Ellie seems to value her time with Peter much more than the time she could be spending with King Westley. Of course, this is what presents a dilemma to her: whether to return to what she valued and hoped for initially or to adopt what she now values, but what is more risky. In the end, her choice leads to a resolution that it is better to adopt the risky option, and to be entirely free of the rich, spoiled world that she was raised in. She decides to return to Peter and live an adventurous life of traveling.
Before reaching this resolution, though, Ellie must go through several points of crisis that develop her character into one that the audience, including me, sympathizes with much more. The first point of crisis occurs soon after meeting Peter Warne. It is the change of Ellie’s character from one resembling an orphan who is abandoned and lost to a character who realizes that she has a problem: she has no idea how to conduct herself through her travels. Initially, she entirely rejects Peter’s help, and even tries to avoid him by sitting away from him on the bus. In the moments leading up to her crisis, though, she begins to accept more and more help from him. First, she moves to the seat beside him when the fat man sitting next to her falls asleep on her, and ends up falling asleep on Peter. While this was an important moment of connection between the two, her true point of crisis doesn’t occur until she meets Shapely on the next bus to New York. Shapely seems to be a semi-threatening figure who is a risk to Ellie until Peter comes to save her by saying she’s his wife. For the first time, Ellie accepts his help without complaint. She accepts that she is incapable of travelling on her own, what with all the risks that are posed to her, being a young woman as she is.
The second point of crisis is one that is more subtle, and perhaps blends in with the mood that Ellie is in once she realizes that she actually enjoys her new life on the go. Her transition from the Wanderer is into the Warrior, or a character that is active in the solution of her problem. The first situation is which Ellie plays a part in saving herself rather than depending on Peter is when the detectives come looking for her in the trailer park. She plays the role of Mrs. Warne perfectly by taking on a new behavioral personality both towards the detectives and towards Peter, and acting very genuinely by reacting to her argument with Peter by crying. Of course because of this, the point no longer seems as subtle, and thus becomes a large transition of Ellie’s character from a reluctant and questioning one to one that is happy with her new life with Peter Warne.
The format of the plot of It Happened One Night is one that was extremely influential at the time that it was made: the Great Depression. The character of Ellie Andrews was representative of the rich of the country (the 1%), who, during the Great Depression, were suffering just as much as the poor because no one had any more insurance on what they stored in the bank than the next man. On the other hand, there’s Peter Warne, who is a working class citizen whose ideals and values are what lead Ellie to survival and success in her goals as heroine. Though this insight might not be clear today, this was meant to equate with economic struggles in America at the time. Capra wanted to teach the public that it was through working class ideas and values that the country would be able to leave the depression. Even if this isn’t easily seen by viewers today, the concept still remains. The entire purpose of the Occ
upy Wall Street movement, and specifically its motto, “We are the 99%,” is to express the importance of the opinions of the majority of the population, not just the top 1% and politicians in both political and economic decisions. With this connection in mind, one watching It Happened One Night would thoroughly enjoy it despite the age and the hidden symbolism from the time, just because of the timeless romance between the two unlikely partners, and their quite hilarious adventures along the American East Coast.