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Best Road Trip Movies: It Happened One Night Review

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Peter (Gable) take a bite out of his signature prop during the film: a fresh carrot  Photo: Columbia Pictures

There was a golden era in cinema history when our screens weren’t saturated with duplication after duplication of the same old road trip film. Back in 1934, a hard-working, up-and-coming Frank Capra produced his first major hit starring Clark Gable, before he didn’t give a damn, and Claudette Colbert, a screen legend of her time who’s rarely mentioned anymore.

That little romantic comedy went on to win all five top Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), which no other film would achieve for 40 years, and single-handedly contribute more to the road movie paradigm than any other film in history.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s about time someone did an It Happened One Night review.

The Plot

This black-and-white classic was based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams.

In an impulsive act disapproved of by her wealthy father, spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) elopes with “King” Westley, a reckless pilot and gold-digger. Overwhelmed by her circumstances, she decides to run away in Florida and make her way to New York to meet her spouse. Along the way, she meets desperate newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who’s ready to blackmail her for a shot at success: either she gives him an exclusive on her story or he’ll tell her father where she is.

With little other option, and no finances available, Ellie agrees to let Peter take her to Westley in New York. What better way for a bored socialite to get out and experience the world than with a road trip? Ellie soon realizes her scorn for Peter is being replaced with affection, and she eventually confesses her love for him, which he returns.

However, through a misunderstanding, Peter leaves to beg for funds from his editor to pay for a wedding, while Ellie believes he has deserted her for reward money from her father.  Ellie returns to her father, who agrees to let her marry Westley. On the day of the official wedding, Ellie’s father realizes the love Peter and his daughter have for each other and encourages her to run away with the reporter. She gives in and runs off to be with Peter, the man she loves.

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The Vehicle(s)

Being that It Happened One Night was produced in the 1930s, there weren’t many automotive options available to showcase in the film. However, one vehicle which makes multiple appearances is the 1926-27 Ford Model T which Peter (Gable) commandeers from a passing stranger who gives them a lift (which, in those days, was apparently acceptable).

His actions to lift the vehicle show how the struggling reporter doesn’t have the money to arrange a ride by other means, which is why he resorts to asking his editor for funds to have a wedding. For both their sakes, Peter  wants to keep Ellie away from crowded modes of transportation where she would be recognized, like on the bus. Remember that bus which Frank and Ellie meet on? That’s a 1932 Yellow Coach Z-CN-670, in case you were wondering.

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Peter drives back to meet Ellie after having retrieved funding for their wedding in a 1924 Ford Model T  Photo: Columbia Pictures

Another vehicle which makes an appearance at the film’s conclusion, and stands in stark contrast to the Ford Model T which got the pair across the country, is a 1931 LaSalle Phaeton. This is the couple’s getaway car as Ellie runs away during her wedding to be united with Peter, and it reflects the wealthy background Ellie’s familiar with well.

Introduced in 1927, the LaSalle line was intended to be a smaller companion to a Cadillac (produced by General Motors’ Cadillac division), which was a fitting choice for a close-topped and comfortable wedding vehicle.

Like this film, the LaSalle also became a trend-setting vehicle in its time.

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Ellie hikes up her wedding dress and hops in to the 1931 LaSalle Phaeton parked at her wedding to go find Peter   Photo: Columbia Pictures

Our It Happened One Night Review

It’s hard to overstate how influential It Happened One Night has been over the years, both to the romantic comedy take on the road trip formula and to film-making in general. Capra’s brisk approach to staging and filming scenes took away the customary melodrama of the time and replaced it with bright and sharp banter between the romantic leads. Because Colbert was not a fan of the film, repeatedly criticizing its quality, Gable had to play practical jokes on her to lighten her up, and the jesting tone between the two is apparent.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story that because Gable didn’t wear an undershirt during the scene he undresses for bed, sales of men’s undershirts dropped immediately. Whether that’s true or not, it still reflects the impact the film had, even upon release.

What makes It Happened One Night work better than all of the romantic comedy road movies today is the dialogue. Because sexual tension had to be expressed in a way that wasn’t overt (which films are more than happy do to these days), but still wasn’t watered down, the tension had to be indirectly expressed through the jabs and remarks rapidly exchanged between the leads.

If you haven’t had the joy of watching this classic, seek it out immediately. It’s more than worth your time.

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Peter and Ellie exchange witty remarks during one of their earliest encounters, meeting on a 1932 Yellow Coach Z-CN-670. Photo: Columbia Pictures