“You know this is the first time in years I’ve ridden piggy back,” ponders Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) to Peter Warne (Clark Gable) in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night as the pair trudge down a country road in Connecticut, far from the laws of civilization and the men pursuing Ellie. Peter, a hard-nosed, recently unemployed journalist, disagrees: “This isn’t piggy back.” What occurs in this moment is one character’s uninhibited expression of joy followed by another’s refusal to look silly, and it’s a dynamic that is visible across many screwball comedies of the 30’s. Ellie’s joy is a simple emotion displayed without pretense, without any attempt to conform to public convention, and it is not until both characters adopt Ellie’s perspective – ultimately, a fresh, untainted perspective, like that of an infant – that they can fully connect. For the soon-to-be-lovers in It Happened One Night as well as Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, reverting to childish behavior is not a way of evading emotional truths as much as it is part of a process of revealing them.
In fact, acting childish is not only a method for following the heart; it’s what’s necessary for characters to emerge from their stuffy social environments with their authentic selves still intact. It Happened One Night and The Awful Truth, among many other similarities, begin in the upscale world of cocktail parties and businesslike marriages before moving inexorably to the untouched wilderness of Connecticut, a stand-in for nature and a tonic that awakens otherwise sublimated feelings of attraction and sexual desire. In order for that transition to occur, however, the central male/female duo must undergo a series of conflicts with each other and with their environment (not unlike the stresses endured by a traditional married couple) that will highlight the unbreakable bond between them. In these films, the characters cannot deal with these conflicts in level-headed, pragmatic ways – doing so would mean contradicting their spontaneous sexual impulses towards one another. Instead, they must approach them through other means: physical combat, role-playing, imaginary scenarios, and all other forms of games that allow them to get closer to each other and act upon the blossoming attachment between them.
Both films, at the beginning, find their central duos in denial of the connection between them, convinced for some superficial reason that they cannot get along. In It Happened One Night, Peter has stumbled upon Ellie in the midst of her escape from her father, who has settled upon the idea of Ellie marrying a rich man she has no feelings for. Peter, immediately feeling an attraction towards her and seeing the clumsiness of her ways (she is carelessly blowing her dwindling pocket change on immediate pleasures rather than doing the sensible thing and saving it for her unpredictable bus trip across country), takes it upon himself to accompany her on her escape, ready whenever to catch her when she’s about to fall. However, Peter disguises what amounts to clear attraction with the cold approach of a disciplinarian: that is, he is only helping her to save her from herself and not for any selfish reasons. Meanwhile, Ellie outspokenly rejects Peter’s assistance even as she relies upon it every step of the way. What exists for these characters is tension, a refusal to acknowledge the air of magnetism between them, and it cannot be alleviated until something loosens them up. Is there a better tool for such a thing than a game?
Unlike Peter and Ellie, Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) begin The Awful Truth as a married couple. They have the advantage of understanding each other. Or, at least they think they do. The truth (maybe the awful truth) is, if they were able to acknowledge how intimately they understand each other, the divorce they initiate at the beginning of the film and nearly consummate at the end of the film would never be a question. Thus, their situation is not entirely dissimilar to Peter and Ellie’s: they must move beyond the surface flaws of their relationship (in this case, they have trouble telling each other the truth about their respective vacations, and therefore both assume infidelity) to reach an acknowledgment of the fundamental qualities that connect them. Over the course of the film, both Lucy and Jerry develop potential partners – an old-fashioned Oklahoma oil magnate for Lucy and a materialistic sporting type for Jerry – before finding their prospect deliberately spoiled by the other person. In a way, the entire process of committing to and then rebuffing some secondary marriage is a game for Jerry and Lucy designed to illuminate the utter farce of either of them being with anyone else.
The turbulent path from detached, formal interactions to childish playfulness – a path reflected by the other progressions in the film such as from civilization to nature and from social order to disorder – is what must be traversed in these films in order for the central couples to eventually enjoy each other’s company. Peter and Ellie’s relationship shifts throughout It Happened One Night from the strict guidance reminiscent of a father-daughter relationship to a point of collaboration and equality. The first hint of this metamorphosis is a scene when they must disguise themselves as a married couple to fend off a search party who has arrived at their countryside motel room. Stunned by the sudden arrival of these men at their door, Peter must devise a strategy to drive them out of the room. He decides to pretend to be an anonymous husband in a petty argument with his anonymous wife, and the anger stemming from his argument is only expanded by the policemen’s interruption of their private space. With only slight hesitation, Ellie follows his lead, snapping back at Peter and then turning her head away in irritation while her “husband” convinces the search party that there is nothing special to see. Once they have achieved their goal of guilting the cops away, the two of them share a cathartic, hearty laughter. It is in such a moment that they mutually acknowledge, albeit non-verbally, the pleasure that can arise from this type of behavior, as well as what it can reveal about their compatible character traits.
There’s a similar moment in The Awful Truth that also tips the audience off to the intensity of understanding between its central couple, and it features Jerry and Lucy out on separate dates at a nightclub. Lucy is with her Oklahoma-born simpleton Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), and Jerry has decided to interrupt their dinner by introducing his boisterous quasi-date Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), who shortly thereafter takes center stage to perform a corny rendition of “My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind.” At every mention of the song’s title, Dixie’s dress is blown up by the fan beneath her feet, a lowbrow joke that nonetheless charms and titillates the club’s classy guests, but Lucy and Jerry share glances of discomfort and embarrassment with each other. Crystallizing the subtext, McCarey bunches them up together in the frame, leaving Dan on the far right, suggesting their unspoken bond through pictorial closeness. Even in this moment when Jerry is feigning interest in his date to disrupt Lucy’s experience and provoke jealousy (a somewhat convoluted game in itself), neither he nor Lucy can ignore that they’re in agreement.
After these initial indications of chemistry, Capra and McCarey begin to introduce additional layers of childish behavior into their narratives. Peter and Ellie steal cars, passing through the countryside shuffling through fake names and auditioning different goofy hitchhiking gestures. Jerry plays a man who’s lost interest in Lucy but still needs to complete unfinished business, and therefore the film finds him repeatedly barging into her space, often during time alone with Dan. Peter dons the persona of a professional criminal seeking $1,000,000 in ransom money in order to scare away a naïve bus passenger who tries to capitalize on the reward for finding Ellie. Lucy facilitates a scenario in which her dog Mr. Smith steals Jerry’s black top hat, causing a mix-up with the her male friend. Ellie worries about the prospect of sleeping in a straw pile in the forest and subsequently cowers in fear when she wakes up in the middle of the night and Peter is nowhere to be found. Jerry hides behind a door and tickles Lucy while she fends off Dan. In The Awful Truth’s most pivotal moment, Lucy intrudes on Jerry’s dinner party at the home of his fiancé Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont) and gets Jerry to coax her out of the house by acting as his nonexistent French sister and performing an even more tasteless version of “My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind.” The fun and games go on.
Because of this seemingly irrational behavior, these characters appear on the surface, especially to those around them, to be in broken, dysfunctional relationships. In It Happened One Night, Peter does not have the wealth or even the desire for wealth that characterizes the men in her family’s social circle. In The Awful Truth, the fact that Jerry and Lucy are on the verge of divorce only confirms the narrow-minded suspicions of those around them they must be unfit for living together. In these films, it’s very much Peter and Ellie/Jerry and Lucy against The World (It Happened One Night builds this idea into its very narrative by using two characters on the run from society), and the question of whether or not they will give in to the demands of conformity shapes the structure of the narratives, providing the overarching external conflict to match the internal conflict. There’s no better image of the ultimate victory over The World than that of Lucy – in a gesture of hilariously disingenuous “oopsiness” – lifting the emergency brake of Jerry’s car to let it roll over the edge of a cliff, prompting their mystical motorcycle ride to the outer reaches of society. From one perspective, it’s a horribly wasteful, immature move, but from another, it’s the most romantic thing possible.
But while both films set the stage for love, they also provide the roadblock. Both It Happened One Night and The Awful Truth use some form of physical division to suggest the emotional barriers erected by the two characters: in It Happened One Night, it’s the “Walls of Jericho,” a white sheet draped on a clothing line in between Peter and Ellie’s single beds, and in The Awful Truth, it’s a door that separates the two guest bedrooms at Ellie’s grandfather’s country home in Connecticut, where they spend the evening leading up to the official annulment of their marriage. These dividers must be torn down for love to bloom, and they finally are torn down at the conclusion of both films due to a blend of natural forces and personal will. That both films end promptly at the annihilation of these roadblocks underlines the symbolic significance of the plot development: everything that occurs throughout the films – the fighting, the playing, the aggressive jabber, and the traveling – leads inevitably towards this moment.
When the bed sheet tumbles to the floor and the wind blows the adjoining door open, it’s also clear that while these characters have made major leaps in their understandings of themselves and each other, they are also paradoxically at their most childish. Like babies, they are suddenly looking at the world with fresh eyes. Peter, in the end, chooses to collect $39.60 rather than the $10,000 reward offered for returning Ellie, suggesting a child innocently arguing for a quid-pro-quo approach, not an adult tainted by greed. Jerry elects not to criticize his sister’s ridiculous behavior in the presence of Barbara Vance’s family, but rather to laugh along with her. When Ellie’s father tells her before her impending wedding at the end of It Happened One Night, “I haven’t seen you cry since you were a baby,” it’s a culminating statement that speaks to the trajectories of both of these films: once at the infantile state, these characters are free to accept the truths of themselves and love each other.