observations by Tony McRae

Romantic comedies of the thirties and early forties were intended to divert audiences from the stark realities of bread lines and men riding the rails, and they did this admirably:  women with sleek dresses clinging to their svelte bodies as they and their tuxedoed men were served iced champagne by deferential butlers and solicitous maids amid showy opulence.  No shortages and no Depression in these stories.  It's what audiences wanted, escapism pure and simple. 

But there were exceptions, and these are some of the best of the screwball genre--Sullivan's Travels and My Man Godfrey come first to mind.  Though most screwballs do not have breadlines or hobos, signs of the Depression sometimes lie seemingly dormant around a film's edges, subtle backgrounds that hint at hard times without interrupting the story.  And in the hands of a master like Frank Capra, these touches broaden and enrich the story.

Take the scene in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night when rich socialite Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), after spending the night with newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) in an auto court cabin (separated by the "Walls of Jericho") ventures out to take a morning shower.  It's a simple stroll of some eighty paces from cabin to washing facilities and it takes half a minute, a rather lengthy shot for a fast-paced comedy.  Yet in those 30 seconds Capra shows us a world teaming with life.  A transient life to be sure (Ellie passes a car with a mattress tied to a fender, men work on their cars and inspect their tires); these people inhabit their surroundings with a familiarity alien to her.  As she walks and skips toward the shower, the camera tracks beside and a bit behind her.  The residents of the auto court go about their mundane activities, carrying water, hoeing a small plot for a garden, one young woman carries her baby, boys play, a woman brushes her hair.  They look upon her as someone from another planet--and of course she is.  Their day has begun and though they are barely making it, they are not destitute, not depressed.  If we look carefully we glimpse people living on the edge, ready to move when their money runs out or there's news of a job in the next town, yet their resolve and pluck will carry them beyond their present predicament. 


She arrives at the shower and naturally goes to the front of the line, only to be put in her place.  A young girl even sticks her tongue out at her.  The scene should be a putdown of Ellie--the rich brat gets her comeuppance--and it is.  Sort of.  But this isn't Capra's point; rather we get a sense of her spunk, her essential goodness even.  She sticks her tongue back at the girl, then smiles rather sheepishly.  She is secretly pleased with the give and take.


It's the kind of scene that Capra is so good at, and when Ellie returns to the cabin after her shower there's a metamorphosis, nothing dramatic, but when the two detectives barge into her cabin thinking she might be the runaway heiress, she is able to transform herself into a woman who belongs in her surroundings.  She plays the complicit wife who can take her husband's tirades and dish it out as well.  

Mobility and the Depression
The movie is based on a short story "Night Bus" and it's this sense of impermanence and mobility that permeates the picture.  While Colbert's father is seen in his yacht, airplane, and speeding limousine, and her fiancÚ King arrives at the wedding in a gyroplane, ordinary folks ride in rattletrap cars, buses, and boxcars.  Nothing seems permanent or deeply rooted.  While such conditions can be debilitating, in Capra's hands the characters are able to discover inner resources they scarcely knew they possessed.  

Mobility means change.  In the Depression moviegoers were looking for change in the characters they watch on screen.  In IHON they get their wish:  Ellie, the rich "brat" experiences poverty if only temporarily; more importantly, in the end she rejects the gold digging  King Wesley in favor of an unemployed newspaperman.  As for Peter Warne, he's a self centered know-it-all with some of the con about him.  So naturally the audience cheers when Ellie is able to show him a thing or two, like thumbless hitchhiking.  She gets results and Peter is not happy at first, but he comes around.  Their relationship has changed. 


There are only a few scenes in IHON that allude to the hard times, e.g., a penniless mother suffers a stroke on a bus that is taking her to a job in another city.  The Depression is not in the forefront, but rather lurks around the edges.  Perhaps "lurks" is too strong; rather it settles in for the long haul, and Capra deals with it matter-of-factly.  There is no one solution on the horizon, but there are hopeful signposts, all of which come from what's inside all of us.  If Ellie Andrews can eat raw carrots, then anything is possible. 

There's a fairytale ending and it works.  The movie is populated by plucky people who are survivors, who know how to make do, who are willing to listen.  They are ready for change, for better times.  That's what Capra's America is all about.