The most obvious and most frequently used symbol in the film is, of course, "the Walls of Jericho." By the end of It Happened One Night, all three of the movie's most important characters—Ellie, Peter, and Andrews—are in on the joke, which Peter is the first to devise when he puts a blanket up to separate his side of the cabin from Ellie's during their first night together.
The actual Battle of Jericho, as recounted in the biblical Book of Joshua, is a pretty dark and disturbing episode. But Peter makes light of it when he says that the blanket he's stringing up will be indestructible, like the Walls of Jericho. He's probably unaware of the irony that, in the end, these walls were totally brought down by a lot of noise.
Trumpet-blasts are traditionally credited with this feat of destruction, and that's why, in It Happened One Night, the last thing we hear about is Peter's request for a trumpet. The wall that separates Peter and Ellie—and that seals his promise not to violate her space or her body—finally comes down. Which means these two are going to have at it to their hearts' content.
The first thing we learn in It Happened One Night is that Ellie's "on hunger strike," and from there on out, the subject of food keeps coming up throughout the film. What's with all the donuts, chocolates, and carrots, not to mention the constant references to hunger?
Well, for one thing, Ellie comes from high society, which in this movie is kind of an empty place. Sure, it's fun and flashy, but it doesn't have much substance. In a way, Ellie is "starving" for something real—and she finds it in Peter. It's no accident that her turning point comes when she finally decides to eat raw carrots. They're not fancy, but they're actually nutritious, and they come from the earth. In a way, Ellie is returning to her human roots (pun totally intended).
On another note, appetite for food is often associated, in literature and film, with the another kind of appetite—you know, the kind of appetite that has to do with good old-fashioned S-E-X. And It Happened One Night can also be seen as a story about Ellie's quest to find—and ultimately to fulfill—her desire. She's never force-fed (even though her father threatens to force-feed her); in fact, Ellie's given space to find what it is she craves—and though that may not be carrots, exactly, it turns out to have a lot in common with the workaday carrot.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
So, if you hadn't noticed, there's not just one protagonist in It Happened One Night. There's a hero and there's also a heroine, who's arguably even more central to the film's plot and message. And the journey that they undertake is one they undertake together. So the hero's journey in the film is really two heroes' journeys.
For Ellie, the ordinary world is the one shown in the film's first scenes. It's a world of fabulous wealth: private cruise ships, made-to-order gourmet meals, and insanely expensive jewelry.
For Peter, who's from a much lower social class, everyday life is marked by conflicts with his boss, whom he drunkenly harasses on the phone in his first scene.
The call to adventure comes when the two lovebirds-to-be meet one another. Ellie has narrowly—and bravely—escaped from her overbearing father, and Peter has simply boarded a bus. But their near-literal collision on the bus will change both of their fates forever.
The call in It Happened One Night is the call of love, and at first neither the film's heroine nor its hero wants to admit it's there, staring them in the face. These two are blinded by all the small differences that set them apart—differences of class, background, experience, temperament, and donut-dunking technique. Their frequent fights represent their refusal to see that they're made for one another.
There's not a plain and simple mentor here. Since Ellie and Peter have to go it alone, they're left to their own devices and have to rely on one another. They do get help from strangers occasionally, but more often than not, they're fooling these strangers, sending them off Ellie's trail, rather than seeking their advice.
At the eleventh hour, Alexander Andrews does turn into a mentor of sorts, though. Against all odds, he turns out to be a believer in and supporter of capital-L Love. He encourages Ellie to believe, too, at a time when she most needs encouragement.
There are many thresholds in It Happened One Night, since Ellie and Peter enter many different spaces—cabins, buses, cars, you name it—and open many doors. But the most decisive of their many crossings may be the one that takes them into their first overnight lodging.
Here, to get detectives off Ellie's case, she and Peter pretend to be a married couple. And the fun they have while doing this first clues us in, even if it doesn't clue them in, to the fact that they'd be great together.
This film is full of tests—in fact, it's pretty much one long obstacle course, putting ordeal after ordeal in the way of the couple's happiness. There's a stolen bag, a broken-down bus, a close call with detectives, a hitchhiking day gone awry, and, last but not least, hunger. All of these are difficulties that Ellie and Peter have to overcome—and that they have to overcome together.
As for allies—sadly, they're few and far between. The man who gives Ellie and Peter a ride when they hitchhike turns out to be a singing "road thief," and the couple who puts them up at the campground near New York is so suspicious that they end up kicking Ellie to the curb. So even figures who at first look like allies turn out to be less helpful than that, even if they're not all full-fledged antagonists.
In fact, Peter and Ellie encounter only one real enemy on the road, and his name is Shapeley. Shapeley's easily dealt with, but the threat he represents is real: the threat of detection by someone who'd recognize Ellie from her picture in the paper.
Peter's visit to Andrews represents his approach to the inmost cave—the "cave" in this case being a massive mansion. What's the big deal about this visit, you might wonder? Well, it marks the moment when Andrews, the real big boss and behind-the-scenes mover of Ellie's life, sees that Peter's the real deal.
This prompts the softhearted Andrews to give the permission that he withheld at the beginning of the film: the permission for Ellie to follow her heart's desires and marry the man of her choice. And in this sense, even though it's inconclusive—it only ends in another fight between Ellie and Peter—Peter's visit to the Andrews estate is a real turning point in the film.
Again, you'll find lots of ordeals here, not just one. The final and most challenging one is worth singling out, though: the wedding. Whereas lots of rom-coms culminate in a wedding scene, Capra's masterpiece is unique in making its wedding scene an obstacle to be overcome.
Just in time, Ellie decides to abandon King Westley at the altar, running away and leaving him in the dust to pursue happiness with Peter. All's well that ends well, as we know from another classic romantic comedy. It sure is a close call in It Happened One Night, though. The film might also be called It Almost Didn't Happen One Night, or Ever!
The seizure of the sword happens late in the film, and it's over before you know it. What's even more significant than this moment's fast pace, though, is the fact that it's the story's heroine and sometime damsel-in-distress who seizes the sword, rather than representing the sword to be seized.
Here's what we mean: Ellie takes action on her own. She's a thoroughly modern woman and doesn't need to be rescued by a man. Instead, Ellie grabs hold of her own destiny and runs from the "fake" King Westley toward Peter, her true love.
We don't see much of the road that leads Ellie and Peter back together, or to the campground where the film ends. Like the seizing of the sword, this phase in the heroes' journey is abbreviated, and before we know it, we're back in Jericho, with the walls about to fall.
Again, we don't actually get to see the film's loose ends being tied up. After their fight just before the film's wedding scene and final ordeal, we don't hear from Peter again, and we last see Ellie when she's dashing away from the altar and from King Westley. Instead, we see a blanket, the "Walls of Jericho," falling at long last.
And this visual cue—ahem, it stands for sex, happening one night—is all we get by way of resurrection. Still there's enough in the film to convince us that this will be more than enough to bring the leading man and lady back to life. In fact, it will bring them a lifetime together.
If there's an elixir here, it's the elixir of love, and though the film doesn't show anyone returning with it anywhere, we can be sure—because everything all along has been proving it—that this return will take place. It happens one night in the film's last scene, but what happens then is totally a recipe for a future life well spent.
It Happened One Night happens off the coast of Miami and in New York, but most of all it takes place on the road between these two places—and at various campgrounds along the way.
This is significant, since this is the story of two people who have to leave their comfort zones behind in order to find themselves and each other. Capra's film suggests that they're able to do this in part because they're far from familiar surroundings. Just as their lives are in transition (more than they know), the film stages transition after transition by staying on the move.
The story in Capra's film unfolds in a pretty linear way, though at first we have some catching up to do—which is why there's so much exposition given upfront during the first scene, on the private cruise ship.
There are twists and turns once Ellie and Peter meet, to be sure; obstacles and ordeals abound in It Happened One Night. But on the other hand, it's clear to the audience once the two travelers meet that it's only a matter of time before they'll fall for each other and, eventually, end up together.
So the film combines suspense (we're kept on the edges of our seats wondering if they'll end up together) with certainty (we're sure all along, deep down, that they'll end up together, this being a Hollywood rom-com and all). At the same time, Capra combines narrative complications (all the twists and turns, obstacles, and ordeals) with a straight-ahead, "cruise-control"-type story that only needs to be set in motion in order to head straight for its resolution.
These may seem like incompatible halves, but seeing It Happened One Night should be enough to convince you that they really do form a whole. And it's by bringing them together that Capra works his narrative magic, casting his cinematic spell over us.
You know you love it, even if you may be ashamed to admit it. But it's okay—no shame here, because at Shmoop, we value rom-coms for the great entertainment they provide and also for the ways they carry on classical comedic conventions. They're the Shakespearean comedies of our time, and they were even more Shakespearean, as you might imagine, in the 1930s, when It Happened One Night made movie history.
It Happened One Night.
Wait, did it? What happened? Which night?
The most likely answer is that two strangers randomly met on a bus one night and started an unexpected adventure that would bring them together.
But maybe "what happened" is that they fell in love, and it happened "one night" in a barn over a dinner of raw carrots.
Or maybe what happened was sex, and it happened on the last night shown in the film.
Who knows? That's part of the fun: The title of the film is as quirky and mischievous as everything else about it.
The film's ending is like the sign on a hotel room door that says, "DO NOT DISTURB." Or maybe it's like a title card that reads, "SEX IN SESSION."
In either case, the last shot in the film provides a visual clue as to what exactly is going on between the sheets after the fall of that flimsy blanket. It gives us all the information we need without revealing too much—hey, it's 1934, after all. We're barely past Prohibition.
Clark Gable scandalized audiences by appearing shirtless in the film's first cabin scene, when he undresses. In other ways, too, It Happened One Night may strike you as surprisingly frank about sex.
But the film's frankness is offset by its modesty. Capra's always saving his leading lady from being too roughly handled, and the film's leading man does the same thing by keeping watch over Ellie and pretending to be her husband so that no one will take any liberties with her or get too close.
The thing that prevents IHON (as we like to call it) from being too much of a shocker, though, is this: The film's determined to make Peter wait until he really is Ellie's husband—and has the papers to prove it—before he and Ellie can get down and dirty. In this sense, Capra insists on modesty and sides with traditional values that say a bride should be virginal and a groom respectful of her purity.