The Beginnings of the Road Trip Movie
I first encountered It Happened One Night
in the Travel Habit course I took in the first part of this semester. When I was considering writing about it for this post, I asked my grandma if she was familiar it. She responded with the grandma equivalent of "Duh" and I took this to be a good sign, as my grandma has impeccable taste in movies. My great-grandfather, her dad, owned a movie theatre in West Haven, Connecticut where I was born. The theatre opened in 1926, one of the first in the state, so by the time this movie came around there had already been almost a decade of films playing there. It's pretty amazing to think about that, since at first glance this particular movie appears to us nowadays as "so old."
The really remarkable thing about It Happened One Night
is its hilarity even today, despite its black and white frames and pretty conventional representation of falling in love with the "wrong" person. Much of the humor is actually based on the road, and Ellie and Peter's mishaps and misunderstandings of how the road works and others they meet on the road. At first, the recently fired newspaperman and escaped heiress travel by bus from Florida to New York, which must have been a pretty new form of long-distance transportation at the time. In the frames you can see the bus seats shaking with the bumps in the road, like it's going to fall apart at any moment.
They encounter things like a far too talkative fellow seatmate, barely any room to breathe in their seats, and being fallen asleep on by an enormous, snoring man - basically, everything we know and recognize as part of public transportation today. Because they're trapped on the bus with the dregs of humanity, the close contact leads to a lot of these uncomfortable, hilarious encounters. While Peter appears to be more knowledgable, like when he seems to know the best way to hail a car as a hitchhiker, Ellie shows him that she sometimes knows better, because the road is (at the time) a new and unpredictable thing - and the best way to hail a car is to show them your bare leg.
This time around watching the movie I payed close attention to the dynamic between Peter and Ellie, since I knew that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert both dreaded making the movie and thought it would bomb completely. You can see this disdain in both of their attitudes, but of course for their characters it works perfectly, as neither wants to be on the road with the other (Peter is using Ellie for a story, and she's using him as a guide.) It makes their dry humor even more effective, as both deliver their lines in a completely deadpan manner.
I also noticed something else - when Peter goes to dig up carrots for Ellie, who complains she can't sleep because of hunger, he eats his carrot leaning up against a wooden fence, chewing out of the side of his mouth and talking all the while. Peter also calls everybdy "Doc" throughout the film. He reminded me immediately of Bugs Bunny, but I dismissed the thought as I figured Bugs Bunny probably came before this movie. It turns out, he came right out of this movie, down to the carrot, the leaning stance, and his "What's up, Doc?" Peter even threatens another character with a made up criminal, "Bugs Dooley," who was the inspiration for the name. So a movie no one thought would be funny inspires one of the original cartoons and most memorable characters of all time, one who also spends a lot of time on the dirt roads of his world.
The movie went on to dazzling success, winning five oscars, every oscar it was nominated for. It was a huge hit, and I think a lot of the surprise success of the movie had to do with its subject of being on the road at such a pivotal time in road trip history. Buses, trains, automobiles - there were finally options available to mostly everyone for long-distance travel. Roadside lodges and diners made it possible to get rest along the road and eat there, too. You never had to leave the road. As interstates appeared, this became more and more true. No offense to Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, but maybe they didn't understand the appeal of the script because as already well-known actors they were hardly planning weekend jaunts to the nearest camping ground, or seeing where a gas of tank could take them. But everyone else was, and the small hilarities of life on the road struck a chord with a traveling American audience, and still does even now.
P.S. The entire movie is on youtube, so rather than post a trailer, here's the whole thing! It really is worth the watch, even just to see how uncomfortable movies & their audiences were with taking any clothing off whatsover (except for Clark Gable's shocking removal of his shirt) - there's a lot of creative directing working around that issue.