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It Happened One Night

1934. Columbia. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Robert Riskin. With Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns

It Happened One Night contains one of those scenes—often seen in "screwball" comedies but not limited to them—when two movie characters, by a spontaneous sort of mutual agreement, improvise a little play. Usually there is some plot-advancing reason that they have to "put something over" on some other characters, but the underlying function seems to be to amuse themselves and each other. The effect is to set them apart, emotionally, from everybody else.

In It Happened One Night. Peter (Clark Gable) and Ellie (Claudette Colbert) "hide" from the authorities who are looking for Ellie by pretending to be a bickering, slovenly, married couple. Peter, thinking fast, starts the charade; he signals a baffled Ellie to play along; and to his and her own surprise, she joins in gamely. Together they convince the detective that he's made a big mistake. This is the point where they truly join forces and become a couple. You can see Peter's regard for Ellie growing throughout their little "playlet:" she's resourceful and a good sport after all. And you can see Ellie's own exhiliration as she tries on the roles of common person and wife and discovers she's pretty good at it. And for both of them there is the sexual thrill that comes from discovering someone with whom you are instinctually in sync.

Take another example: In The Awful Truth, Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) breezes into the nightclub where her ex-husband Jerry (Cary Grant) is dining with his fianceé (and I think her mother). Lucy noisily claims to be Jerry's sister. Her behavior is tacky and insulting, and she ends up singing a terrible song and falling down. Jerry is embarassed but also delighted. His gives Lucy a little "touché" glance now and again and she redoubles her efforts. Only the two of them fully appreciate the performance; seeing the squares not only discomfited but fooled is great fun. The "awful truth" is that neither Lucy nor Jerry will ever find another partner so simpatico, so entertaining.

Scenes like this seem to me an expressive way of showing a natural sympathy between potential lovers; the equivalent of having them burst into song (we know the same song and we can harmonize!) or go wordlessly into a dance routine. People who can riff together, intuitively picking up on each other's cues and responding to each other's rhythms, are clearly in love, though they may not realize it. I'd say that these moments of "improvisation" are one of the key ways that movies of the 30s had of showing people having sex.

Perhaps we can see this as another instance of self-referentiality. For what we are seeing are meta-performances—actors (singers/dancers) playing characters who aren't necessarily actors/singers/dancers themselves but are inspired by romance to act/sing/dance.

Here's an insight from a book called The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s by Elizabeth Kendall (Anchor Books/ Doubleday), a first-rate analysis of actress/director collaborations, insightful and charmingly written. Kendall writes about It Happened One Night:

"Peter Warne even coaches Ellie in a mock movie scene, when her father's detectives come looking for her in the auto court. He musses her hair, undoes her collar, and cues her in a loud, bullying voice. She catches on and pretends to be a rowdy wife arguing with her Cracker husband. Such a moment invites the audience backstage to witness Hollywood's mystical secrets. These are actors playing roles--sometimes roles within roles...."

"Invites the audience backstage..." Surely this is part of the thrill of these performance-within-performance scenes. We get to see the actors (Gable, Colbert, Dunne, Grant) at work. We get a glimpse of how they do what they do—throwing themselves into pretending, improvising, tossing lines back and forth, encouraging and admiring each other, intimate in full view of onlookers.

For all that, play-acting within movies does not always occur within a romantic context. There's the scene in Only Angels Have Wings when all the fliers spontaneously fall into their "Who's Joe?" routine at Bonnie's expense? And the night that Rhett, Melanie, Ashley and others put on an elaborate show about the men having been out whoring when they were actually at some sort of KKK meeting.

It also seems that a single character can do it by himself, for his own private amusement. There's the auction scene in North by Northwest where Thornhill pretends to be drunk and unruly; and the scene in Going My Way where Father O'Malley listens and nods with mock seriousness as a young girl tells him about her utterly unrealistic plans to elope and become a famous singer; and Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story meeting the James Stewart character for the first time and delivering a sort of parody portrayal of the affected rich girl that she thinks Stewart expects). It's a variant of the same thing, shared with us rather than another character.

But it does seem critical that the scene include at least one character who doesn't realize what's going on; a sort of on-screen audience to function as the butt of the joke. (I think of the woman at the auction who turns around and says to Thornhill something like, "Well, you're no fake. You're a genuine idiot.")

Why is it so thrilling and moving when actors supplement "invisible" acting with an episode of "visible" acting? And why is this such a popular strategy for a whole class of movies?



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein