Weirdly, for one of the best romantic comedies of all time, I had much trouble remembering this a couple weeks later and had to look up the TCM synopsis – unlike The Good Fairy and Roman Holiday and High Society and What a Way to Go!, which I recalled as well as I ever do. So I’d better watch this again sometime.
Anyway, heiress Claudette Colbert (between Lubitsch films The Smiling Lieutenant and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife) is on the run from her overdetermined life and meets chivalrous Clark Gable on the bus. He’s a reporter who agrees to help her if he gets an exclusive story – shades of Roman Holiday – but unlike that movie, this is one of the madcap screwball comedies where writing out the plot would take longer than rewatching the movie – the gist being that the two of them fall gradually in love after spending much travel time together, and she finally flees her society wedding to stay with Gable.
Criterion ad copy: “The first film to accomplish the very rare feat of sweeping all five major Oscar categories (best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, and best screenplay), It Happened One Night is among the most gracefully constructed and edited films of the early sound era, packed with clever situations and gags that have entered the Hollywood comedy pantheon and featuring two actors at the top of their game.”
That first autobus ride is clearly an alien experience for the heiress, who has until this point remained unaware of the greater world around her. At first, she is uncomfortable with her fellow passengers, but eventually she joins them in song and then feels sympathetic pain for the plight of a mother and son who don’t have enough to eat. (Explicitly here, and implicitly throughout the film, Capra is making a brave choice for a romantic comedy by telling us that this is no movie fairyland but very real Depression America — where buses might serve those who could no longer afford cars and hitchhiking those who could afford neither.)
In what must be the movie’s most famous scene (although it has a lot of competition), Pete demonstrates, at length and with a fantastic amount of condescension, the proper way to hitchhike: “It’s all in the thumb.” Ellie, splendidly deadpan, watches an entire traffic jam’s worth of cars zip by Pete and his magic thumb, then slinks over and lifts her hem to reveal one of the loveliest legs in movie history. Cut to slamming brakes, then the couple in the rumble seat of a car. But here’s the thing: The man who has stopped (played by Alan Hale) turns out to be a road thief, bent on stealing their remaining suitcase. For all Ellie’s triumph, the creep was looking for a mark, and probably would have stopped in any event.