Before venturing out on a road trip through the Pacific Northwest, I set aside Frank Capra’s classic to function as my official “welcome back” party. I knew very little about it other than it was the first picture to sweep all five major Oscars, and that Claudette Colbert lifts her skirt as the ultimate in hitchhiking technique. Recently, that well-known scene and its leg appeared in an absolutely dreadful new film, so I figured I better check out this film before my mind permanently associated the two. Miss Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a wealthy society girl who runs away from her father and towards the man she has just married. While on the run, Ellie meets Peter Warne, a reporter with nothing to write about, played by the always-lovely-to-see Mr. Clark Gable.
Maybe I was tired from the drive, or maybe I was hungry and cranky, but this one didn’t exactly “wow” me like I expected. I wouldn’t go so far as to place it in the “dislike” column; there have been a number of classic films that did not move over to my shelf of favorites until I saw them a second time. It’s a cute flick with a number of those little things that I love about old movies, the first being the “silent movie actress” look of Miss Claudette Colbert. The dark, heavy eyes and small lips give her a look that makes me hear the notes of a silent movie piano following her every move. She and Mr. Gable’s character are less than friendly with one another at the beginning, and the comforting predictability of that familiar storyline moves us along by way of a rickety old bus. One of my favorite shots is of the front of this bus, filled with license plates, and again the black-and-white screen makes me smile with one moment that lasts about three seconds.
Every Sunday (back before the Flood), Dad used to take us to the doughnut shop so we could snag a dozen in celebration of the weekend. As one of the most picky eaters in the history of children, I would eat only the chocolate-covered doughnuts that were shaped like feet . . . still I cannot comprehend the appeal of food that was filled with sticky purple goo. Alas no particular pedal fetish developed later, but eating something shaped like a foot did bring up one question for me — why was it considered so rude to dunk a doughnut in one’s coffee? When Peter gives a Ellie a lesson in the proper way to dunk, this question that’s haunted me for years popped back into my head. It seems like a perfectly lovely idea, perhaps dismissed as rude before doughnut feet came along.
As Ellie begins to behave as others would not expect was part of what made me enjoy Claudette Colbert’s performance more than Clark Gable’s. Although they’re both playing characters we’ve since seen many times since, there was something about Miss Colbert for me that made me want her to keep going, either with or without him. Since I was fresh off a trip of my own that consisted of leaving the world behind, I could feel her need to get away from all the definitions others placed upon her — on her own, Ellie would learn how to dunk her doughnut properly. She knew she could stop a car, and she didn’t even use her thumb. That car-stopping thigh of hers brought her an Oscar for Best Actress, an award she was certain was going home with a fresh, intimidating newcomer — a 26-year-old Bette Davis received a write-in Oscar nomination after her explosive performance in Of Human Bondage.
During my drive through Oregon and Washington, I came to refer to the journey as my “I’ve Got No Strings” road trip. Leaving the world (and my 20s) behind as I drove further north, I was able to recapture the unsurpassed joy of travel, one I had not felt in quite a long time. I had no boss or clients to answer to, no phone calls or text messages that had to be returned, and no opinions other than my own about what to do, where to go, what to eat, or how to dress. It was one of my greatest trips (so far), and I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some pretty amazing places. When I made it home and popped in It Happened One Night, I couldn’t help but understand Ellie’s need to jump overboard and swim away from everything around her that scripted her every move. Diving into new waters and splashing around for a bit absolutely did me a world of good.
Academy Awards for It Happened One Night (1935): Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Director, and Best Writing (Adaptation)