One of the most insightful people I know about movies is my friend Michal Oleszczyk, and he has written a marvelous essay about one of my favorite movies, “It Happened One Night.” The screwball romantic comedy about a runaway heiress and a fast-talking reporter won a Best Picture Oscar and Oscars for its stars, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and for director Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin, the only five-Oscar sweep until “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Silence of the Lambs” many decades later. Fans of the film — and those who have not seen it yet — will enjoy Oleszczyk’s witty and insightful love letter to this great film.
Pauline Kael famously said that American comedies of 1930s presented marriage and courtship as a vaudeville act, and love is indeed equaled with roleplaying throughout It Happened One Night. Peter and Ellie first click as a couple when they act out an impromptu scene to dupe the detectives sent by Ellie’s father. The entire mock-fight, taking place in a camping bungalow amidst lovingly depicted morning disarray, serves as the first instance of intimacy that’s enjoyed by both Peter and Ellie. As they impersonate conjugal strife all too plausibly (can it be that we get a glimpse into their much later married life?), they take physical pleasure in suddenly becoming a working-class bickering couple.
The scene also includes one of the loveliest and most erotic pieces of business in the film: as soon as the detectives leave, Peter kneels before Ellie and buttons up her blouse, all the while congratulating her on the performance she just gave. He doesn’t have to look down her cleavage to signal his desire: putting on some clothes had rarely been that sexy (a point made even stronger by the fact that there’s hardly a costume change in the film – Peter and Ellie are like a pair of commedia dell’arte mimes, putting on identities even as their costumes remain the same). Even more than Dirty Dancing, It Happened One Night is a movie in which sexual bliss is signified by lovers’ harmony as performers.