Modern Comedy

One of my favorite movies is over 70 years old. Of course, I think I have good taste, as did the Academy. This film was the first film to win the grand slam – Best Director, Actor, Actress, and Picture, plus a Screenwriting award. It’s only happened two other times, for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs, making this the option with the fewest mental patients. If you haven’t guessed, I’m referring to It Happened One Night from 1934. It’s a story of rich heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who rashly married aviator King Westley – real name, not an honorific – to spite her father, then ran away when the dad tried to annul the wedding. Newspaperman Peter Warne (Clark Gable), on the same bus as Ellie, figures things out, and begins to escort her back to New York. There are so many things I enjoy about this film. While quotes aren’t everything, there are enough to make a quality list.

  • Next time you drop in, bring your folks. (Spoken after Ellie stumbles as the bus pulls out, falling into Peter’s lap.)
  • Every hear of the word humility? No, you wouldn’t. I guess it never occurred to you to just say, please mister I’m in trouble, will you help me? No, that’d bring you down off your high horse for a minute.
  • Twenty millions and you don’t know how to dunk! (Used in a Dunkin Donuts ad a few years ago.)
  • Now you take Abraham Lincoln, for instance, a natural born piggybacker.
  • The limb is mightier than the thumb.
  • Any guy that would fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
  • (The father asks Peter: Do you love her?) Yes! But don’t hold that against me. I’m a little screwy myself.

There are several larger points. I’m spoiling a lot of the movie here, so if you haven’t seen the movie, and want to not know the ending, don’t read any further. Go watch the film first. Better yet, buy a DVD and watch the film, then come back. That also drives up my hit count. (And if I was really smart, I’d get an Amazon link to put here.)

  1. Fedoras. Lots of fedoras. In the bus station phone scene, I count almost a dozen. In 2006 America, hats are almost exclusively functional. It’s part of the trend towards less formality. Two or three generations ago, business attire included a suit and hat. Now we’re lucky to get Dockers. People plead physical comfort. Maybe that’s true, though I suspect it’s mostly from not knowing how to buy clothes that actually fit. It’s really discomfort with formality. The distinction between friend-ly and friend-s has disappeared, so people feel the casualness of informality is the only way to show respect. That’s just not true. It’s almost amazing how many compliments I get when wearing one of my 4 fedoras, how rare the concept is. “Me and 50 year old black men,” I often deadpan, which is basically true. The African-American community has a concept of respect that I appreciate, and seem to emulate. That respect includes presentation in public.
  2. The Walls of Jericho. Clothes again play a role, as Clark Gable does not wear an undershirt. It wasn’t a fashion statement – Gable couldn’t continue the chatter while pulling it over his head. A consequence is that not wearing an undershirt became cool, leading to a large drop in sales. Underwear manufacturers thought about a lawsuit for loss of income.
    The bigger issue of this great scene is that Peter shows honor by taking the initiative to avoid impropriety. Another thing people find strange is that I do not enter a woman’s dwelling, or her sleeping-room, without an invitation. I’ll wait at the door, or ask if I can enter. This is about as unusual as the fedora. Some women find it alien, while others find it proper. I tend to get along better with the second group.
  3. Claudette Colbert is gorgeous, as I’ve written about before. She’s a movie star, so that shouldn’t be surprising. I also like to remind people that she’s 30. And even in The Palm Beach Story, eight years later at 38, she’s still stunning. Beauty doesn’t end at 22, despite what television would project. I should mention here that not everything is totally proper. Ellie shows her full leg (LEG!) to get a car to stop. Plus, there’s a short scene with Ellie briefly in a camisole, since her traveling bag has been stolen. This would have been much more difficult under the Hays Code, and while not fully necessary, does add to the entanglement of two people on the run with limited resources.
    Furthermore, the character Ellie is witty and sarcastic. She is naive and inexperienced, but not dainty or stupid. She knows what to do in the hitchhiking scene, for instance. How many current romantic comedy females get a role like this? Even 20 years later, the princess in Roman Holiday was much less wise. In modern times, Bridget Jones got celebrated for being less.
  4. Peter turns Ellie down in Philadelphia. He finds her lovable and attractive, enough to ask her if she was serious after her first offer, but she was asleep. As he says, “I don’t make it a policy to run around with married women.” He finds her attractive enough to barter away his hat and race into New York, begging for money to be able to propose. Yet he turns her down.

Wedding Crashers: A Comparison

I watched Wedding Crashers this fall on one of the 15 or so HBO channels I got through a Comcast cable promotion. It’s a very popular romantic comedy, and not unfunny. What’s the premise? The main male characters, John and Jeremy, sneak into weddings. Then, through a combination of beauty, charm, and guile, they seduce women into short term sexual relations. John and Jeremy are quite different from Peter. To quote Jeremy: “We are gonna have tons and tons of opportunities to meet gorgeous ladies that get so aroused at the thought of marriage that they’ll throw their inhibitions to the wind.”

Movies represent fantasy, mostly, the fantasy that is offered to us. In 1934, It Happened One Night was considered an excellent comedy with huge box office receipts. In 2005, Wedding Crashers was, earning over $200 million in ticket sales. There are a lot of similarities between the two movies; it’s almost as if the second remade the first. Both movies star a beautiful, wealthy, intelligent woman and a middle class man. Gratuitous topless people are included, though the gender changes from male to female. The father is loving and perceptive, and supports his daughter. The leading man and woman come together through rough happenstance, where the guy knows more than the girl. Contrived funny circumstances occur, and both films have humorous parts. Most imporantly, at the end of both films, it’s Happily Ever After; the leading man gets the girl after she runs away from the altar.

While very similar, there are differences between the films. The first is intent. In It Happened One Night, Peter stumbles upon Ellie on a bus. His actions come from a mix of protectiveness, her stated desire to return to Westley, and his interest in a news story. In Wedding Crashers, John chases leading lady Claire, and his actions are focused on his desires. The “other suitor” also differs. King Westley is the wrong man, a silly and impulsive choice, but never a bad man. He’s portrayed as concerned and caring. The writers of Wedding Crashers included a small scene where Claire’s other suitor Sage is heavy-handedly evil, speaking about affairs and duplicity. It’s needed because John is unscrupulous, falsifying his name and job and even tampering with Sage’s dinner. The other guy has to get pretty nasty for John to gain sympathy.

When the moment arrives, the women decide based on the ideals of their eras. John’s Big Speech (yes, it’s capitalized) comes down to Fun: “But the feelings we felt; the jokes, the stupid laughs, that was all me.” Peter’s more. For sure, he wants good times, as Ellie propositions him after he describes moonlight on the surf of a Pacific island, and earlier he was very involved in the song on the bus, quite fun. Yet Virtue is what Ellie’s dad elucidates in the Big Speech: “He didn’t want the reward. All he asked for was $39.60, what he spent on you. Said it was a matter of principle. You took him for a ride. He loves you, Ellie. He told me so.”

The two popular films dramatically show the generational difference. Now, it seems relationships focus on Fun and Chemistry, which is translated (on this site) as Frakability. Women are afraid of bushido, I’m told – be light! Be Fun! That’s attractive! Not for the first time do I think I would survive better socially in 1940 and the world of honor and It Happened One Night. Too bad, eh?

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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