Hitchhiking Down the Highway of Love
by Elisabeth Geier
If, in 2013, the daughter of a multimillionaire ran away after eloping with a famous aviator (what is the modern equivalent of a famous aviator? A travel show host? Anthony Bourdain?), she would book a flight on Virgin America and spend the journey staring at the tiny computer in her hand and the satellite tv inches from her face. She would fly right over the road, miss all the majesty and mustachioed dreamboats that non-urban America has to offer, and be cornered by paparazzi at the other end. Still, the thrill of escape is a timeless one.
For a 75-year-old movie whose biggest plot point (and joke) hinges on the sexual inexperience of its central female character, It Happened One Night is still remarkably fresh. Technically, “it” happens over the course of at least four nights, and is rather hard to define. A plucky heiress and a boozy newsman fall in love? An opportunistic reporter manipulates a naive young woman? Two attractive strangers team up for a whirlwind romance along the eastern seaboard? Whatever “it” is, it set the standard for thousands of road movies to follow: unlikely travelling companions, madcap adventure, and the redemptive (and often seductive) power of the road.
It Happened One Night begins with Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a sheltered rich girl who runs away from her father when he disapproves of her marriage to famous aviator King Westley. (I will not spend any time discussing the non-character that is King Westley, save to say that King Westley is the greatest name ever for a famous aviator and/or a Wheaton Terrier.) Ellie is spotted in a Greyhound station by Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a mustachioed dreamboat newspaperman who recognizes the runaway heiress as the headline of his life. Their first exchange makes clear what will follow: “That upon which you sit is mine,” says Peter, gesturing vaguely towards her bus seat, or perhaps something else. “I beg your pardon,” says Ellie, clutching her purse. They hate each other from the start, so clearly we know that they're bound to fall in love. Eventually Peter reveals that he knows who Ellie is, and promises to help her get to New York if she gives him an exclusive story. If she refuses, he's going to turn her in and claim the $10,000 reward. Blackmail: turning adversaries into lovers since 1934. ..
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