COMM 250
Short Paper 1

It Is Still Happening

    More than 70 years have gone by since the debut of the black-and-white film “It Happened One Night,” but it is still regarded by many as a classic. Sometimes described as a prototype of the romantic comedy, this film is one whose influence might be described as “innovatively formulaic” for its time. Today, “rom-coms” are generally thought of as (and known for) being predictable, but in the ‘30s, this cinematic sub-genre was still being developed. This movie is, in some ways, risqué—at least, it was for its time. In many ways, it played by its own rules, and some of these became widely used and are still around today.

    Like most movie genres, the romance comedy has some elements and features common to (most films of) the genre. Today, “It Happened One Night” might be written off by some as the epitome of cookie-cutter romance comedies. What’s more, some of those critics say, the film is really dated and “shows its age.” On one hand, this is true: No modern-day movie would be able to effectively use some of the same material that “It Happened One Night” did in 1934, especially some of the comedy, and this film definitely has a simplicity, (sort-of) innocence and overall atmosphere that would no longer work.

    But in actuality, this isn’t a reason to criticize the film or condemn it as being a useless old relic; the above argument supports the film. Of course much of the movie is radically different from rom-coms of today; they’re supposed to change! The language, relationship dynamics, gender politics, social norms and conflicts all reflect society during the era. That is partly why rom-coms work: Some of the comedy is used to comment on the issues and problems of the times; the romance can both reflect and challenge contemporary attitudes about relationships, including what is thought acceptable.

    But what is a good basic definition of a rom-com—or, at least, how do you know when you’re watching one? To answer that, first look at the term “romantic comedy.” Romance is, of course, about love (emotional attraction) and relationships, and it is about nervousness and mistakes. The comedy is in the fact that everybody has those feelings and makes those mistakes, so they recognize them and identify with them. The ending of a rom-com is, almost without fail, the unification of two people who were meant to be together. In the process, they face (and overcome) many obstacles, and the two people come to realize their love for one another.

    The above definition provides a good starting point for seeing how “It Happened One Night” fits some of the norms of romance comedies. The film shows a lot of subtle understanding of what “being human” involves, and we’re shown such a diversity of characters—both major and minor ones, all the way down to extras—that we can’t help but notice and enjoy the many quirks of any given person’s personality and individuality. People can be goofy, clueless, obnoxious, witty, self-absorbed, hardened and everything in between. So maybe it is true that a busload of passengers singing a song is from a very different time; maybe such scenes don’t advance the plot, but who cares? Rom-coms sometimes remember the value of just allowing the characters to be “real” – open, having fun, just sort of being there and being “themselves.”

    Another element of rom-coms to be seen is in the comedy, both verbal and physical, and it is a complicated area. How does the comedy tend to be played out? As hinted at before, humor can come from current (real-life) issues, as well as from the complexities of relationships and love. Oftentimes, romance comedies will be more subtle (or less frequent) with the use of physical comedy and more overt with the dialogue. Peter, for example, talks about sitting on a newspaper, getting ink on his pants and having people following him to read the headlines, but a such a film wouldn’t show it actually happening, mostly because that would just be slapstick with no meaning behind it. When visual humor does come in, it is either subtle (like dipping a donut)—often to develop some aspect of a character—or so obviously unexpected (like a spank, or piggy-backing, or putting up a curtain) that there clearly has to be some reason for its existence.

    The actual conversation, on the other hand, seems more likely to be a bit exaggerated or hyperbolic, and when something amusing is said, it often has some sort of connection to the current situation of the character; he or she may say something out of anger, or frustration, or confusion, for example. It may not be a line that a person would really say in real life, even in the same situation, but it may work (for the film) to highlight what the character is feeling.

    But a major part of both the comedic and the romantic aspect of the film is in the “bigger picture,” or the growth and development of the man and the woman’s relationship. As stated earlier, love is complicated and filled with misunderstandings and mistakes, and characters in rom-coms gradually come to realize how they feel about one another.

    The entire romance comedy itself may sometimes be seen as humorously intended, often because the path to love is never a straight one, especially in cinema. One of the recognizable qualities of romantic comedies is the bickering and mutual annoyance between two people, and such ‘hostility’ inevitably precedes their real feelings. Before getting to that point, though, they first go through different ‘stages,’ including learning to trust the other person, actually enjoying his or her company, and having to overcome some sort of barrier that separates them.

    What this film does so well is show us, the audience, two completely different people who in every way seem to be a bad match and who have different motives—but we also get to see both how and why these two people come to like each other. Films don’t work if the chemistry isn’t there, and we really get the idea that both Ellie and Peter come to see that each is what the other person wants in someone. Ellie is a socialite who has never been given the opportunity to see and experience the world for herself. Peter is a hardened but resourceful man who decides to give Ellie a chance—because she grows up and basically wants to prove (especially to Peter) that she is capable.

    The analysis to this point is limited both by length and perhaps having too much available in the film to choose from. There are many aspects of “It Happened One Night,” including as they relate to romantic comedy as a genre, and this discussion doesn’t do justice to all of them. The film gives us many other rules, as well. In the ‘30s, it was nearly taboo to even mention or suggest sex, as indicated by the “Walls of Jericho” both literally and metaphorically; even today, anything too provocative is rarely seen in any self-respecting rom-com. The film reminded us of another rule, namely, that both characters have to be at least somewhat likable; they have to have motivations as well as struggles; they have to be people to whom we can relate. They can’t just be overblown, stereotypes to be written off as shallow, static people. Words and actions can be exaggerated, but not ridiculously so, and solutions or endings can’t just be a deus ex machina. Situations can be improbable but not impossible. Keep the audience guessing, instead, and throw them a few twists.

    But maybe most important is to make the audience really want the characters to end up together. If the audience stops relating to the characters, the whole movie has not done what it is intended to do. It is there to allow people to see an amusing, sometimes exaggerated version of what they know really happens. In movies and in reality, people do foolish things, say things they don’t intend to, come to better understand themselves, go through misunderstandings, experience anxiety and confusion, find love, and have fun along the way. No one has to be told how a romantic comedy is going to end; it’s almost insignificant.

    But if the movie has made people laugh, and they laughed because they saw themselves or their situation reflected in a character or dilemma, then what does it matter how old the film is? Comedy, cinema and civilization all change. What doesn’t change is the idea that love can endure many trials. What seemed like, and was, a simple-enough film from 1934 proved significant because it was straightforward, clever and willing to try something different and less “acceptable.”

It Happened One Night. Dir. Frank Capra. Columbia Pictures, 1934.