Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) comes as a perfect antidote to the seemingly endless crises and depression of present age. It celebrates love and happiness at their incorruptible states; affirms the existence and possible prevalence of “pure-at-hearts” goodness, and restores hope to a world that has shown signs of incurable damages. Even when seeing the film now under a slightly different social context, its counter-Depression positivism can seem at times too implausible a pipe dream. Ellie’s (Claudette Colbert) utilitarian kindness towards the hunger-stricken mother and son is largely induced by and acted on the strength of Peter’s (Clark Gable) disposition to boastful jests- he flaunts the money and pretends to be a millionaire; she responds on cue and squeezes that money into the hand of the son. Ironies like this indicate a discrepancy between the privileged and the destitute that is only going to widen: charitable instincts come more easily for those who are impervious to the travails of life, whose narratives follow the immutable line of having instead of striving. Peter, of the inferior class that also mires in impoverishment like the mother and son, hesitates before reluctantly giving away what is perhaps a few months’ rental. Never is a moment of individual kindness suffused with such pathos.
Great art entails multiplicity. Just as Capra rhapsodises the fairy-tale-like romance that transcends the boundary of classes, he makes no bones about the bleak aspect of reality that lurks around the beautiful picture. The first spark of affection between the unlikely pair is enkindled when both are compelled to put on an impromptu show of impersonation, as bickering husband and wife, to put off scent the detectives hired by Ellie’s father. Playacting soon becomes a convenient pretext of checking into motels and hitching for ride, a facile means for indulging in the intimacy that won’t even occur if outside this particular circumstance. It is only a matter of time that the tenuous line between reason and illusion is obliterated. This line, in the film, comes in the form of a “Wall of Jericho,” an old blanket that hangs between their beds, which cannot be toppled down if without the blast of trumpet (the implication is quite clear that I suppose no further explanation is needed). On the last leg of their journey, Ellie, moved by Peter’s ideal of living on a remote island, takes the initiative of crossing over the “wall” and pledging her love.
There is something unnerving about the notion of love equaling make-believe. By having courtship played out in the way of a double act Capra highlights the absurdity of human relationships. Ellie is plucked back to reality when a series of turn of events lead her to suppose that Peter’s heart is only on her money and not herself. The story ends in a wonderful way: Ellie’s hitherto domineering father, realising that the love between the pair is genuine and mutual, gives his daughter the invaluable gift of the autonomy, to decide for herself whom she will spend her life with. Self-determination assumes the ultimate power of dissolving all demarcations.
Another film that shares a similar storyline, Wyler’s Roman Holiday, ends with Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann chooses her royal duty over love, and the lovers separate. This coda is comparatively crueler but it underlines the noble characters of the protagonists, whose budding romance doesn’t lead them to willful ignorance of their responsibilities. The short-lived amour seems all but a dream; a very beautiful dream indeed.