Although there's no denying that she's a spoiled brat when It Happened One Night first begins, Ellie Andrews wins our hearts with her wit, her openness, her good humor, and her taste for adventure.
Speaking of tastes for things, that's a key part of Ellie's character. When the film starts, she's on a "hunger strike," according to the jailers her father employs. And even though these hired hands can't keep her down—come on, she jumps off the cruise ship and swims to shore in the film's first scene—she remains hungry for much of the rest of the film. Over and over again in It Happened One Night, we hear her complain of hunger.
When we do see Ellie eat, then, it's significant: She shares an unforgettable breakfast with Peter, during which he teaches her how best to dunk a donut—and suggests that rich people don't know the first thing about dunking techniques. Later, Peter will complain that Ellie's spoiled when she won't eat the carrots he has managed to scrounge up. She hates them, she complains like a picky eater. But a few scenes later, we see her reluctantly chowing down, raw carrot in hand. If you're hungry enough, you'll eat anything: that seems to be the moral of this particular story.
Well, okay, but what's the big picture here? You may be surprised to learn that some famous smartypants philosophers have taken it upon themselves to talk all about It Happened One Night. Take Stanley Cavell, for instance. Calling that raw carrot the "food of humility" (humility is the very quality that Peter says Ellie lacks early on), Cavell wants you to know that "[e]ating the carrot is [Ellie's] acceptance of her humanity, of her true need—call it the creation of herself as a human being."
That may sound like what Peter would call "a lot of hooey" to you. But if so, think again, and then try watching the scene in question one more time. What Cavell wants to emphasize is Ellie's transformation, the metamorphosis at the center of It Happened One Night: A poor little rich girl when the film begins, Ellie becomes a full-fledged human and an independent woman by the time the film ends.
Ellie chooses Peter, then, not simply in order to escape from her father's constraints. This was what King Westley represented for her: freedom, but only from her father, not freedom for herself. By contrast, Peter accepts and loves her for who she is. He sees her flaws—well, let's be real: He can't not see them, given the situations they're thrown into together. But he falls for her not despite but because of the very qualities that, he says, would drive any "normal person" crazy:
PETER: A normal human being couldn't live under the same roof with her, without going nuts.
That's Ellie, all right, but as Peter admits in the same breath, he's "a little screwy" himself. They're crazy together, and that's why they're made for each other, as scene after scene in It Happened One Night keeps showing us. This is a match made not in heaven, though, but very much on earth. The love that Capra's film is all about can only take root in humble places like campsites, bus seats, and roadsides.
In other words, it's not the moolah and high society that the heiress Ellie is used to that makes true love possible. That kind of thing only happens in Sex and the City. Instead it's in the dirt—the dirt where carrots are grown—that we discover our common humanity. Air is King Westley's element—he's a pilot, after all—and it used to be Ellie's, but it's earth that Ellie needs. It's only here that Ellie finds the love that feeds her.
Peter Warne's an impoverished newspaperman who's part clown and part tough guy, and he's got a heart of gold. To put the cherry on top, he's also a hopeless romantic underneath his gruff exterior. This becomes clear as soon as he starts to look after Ellie Andrews—which is pretty much right after he meets her. And his chivalry is that much more remarkable, since it contrasts with his stated opinion of Ellie—he thinks she's totally spoiled. (He's kind of right.)
Here's what we mean: Peter keeps saying that he has nothing but disdain for the rich in general, and in particular for spoiled brats like Ellie. But his behavior suggests otherwise: For example, he takes over Ellie's expenses when he realizes that she can't manage money on her own. (She's never had to.) He does all kinds of nice things for her: He gives her a piggyback ride, makes her a bed, forages for food for her, and just generally has her back. All of these caring gestures clue us in and prepare us for his grand declaration of love later.
Of course, several more obstacles have to be overcome before Peter and Ellie can end up together and win their "mad fight to happiness."
That's where the suspense of It Happened One Night comes from, and it's part of the fun of watching the film. But once Peter realizes that he's not just after a story—he's after Ellie herself—there's no changing his mind. There can be no mistaking it: He's hooked, and even though he continues to fight with Ellie almost until the end of the film (in fact, the last time we see them together, they're still fighting), we learn to recognize this squabbling as an expression of love.
Not that fighting's the only thing that Peter and Ellie do together, of course. On the contrary, It Happened One Night shows them sharing all kinds of adventures—which is just what Peter wants. When Ellie asks him what he's looking for in a woman, he answers,
PETER: She'd have to be the sort of a girl who'd jump in the surf with me on moonlit nights—and love it as much as I did.
As the film nears its end, Peter realizes—later than Ellie does—that this is just what she has been doing with him all along: jumping right into adventure after adventure. And this, together with the je ne sais quoi that is their chemistry, is why he loves her. Luckily for Peter, he's chosen a leading lady who's adventurous to the end—one who's willing to leave the man she's already married at the altar, seek an annulment, and make the transition to wedded bliss, campground-style.
Magnate and millionaire Alexander Andrews is a tyrant when it comes to his daughter, Ellie. He won't let her make her own decisions—or mistakes, as in the case of her marriage to King Westley. He turns out to be right in his judgment of the pilot's character, but that doesn't mean that we admire Andrews, even if we do believe by the end of It Happened One Night that he has his daughter's happiness in mind.
When we're introduced to this rich and famous man, he's aboard a ship, holding his daughter hostage after kidnapping her to prevent her from consummating her marriage to King Westley. That pretty much says it all right there: Andrews would stop at nothing to prevent Ellie from marrying a guy he can't stand.
And so we're pleasantly surprised to see that he changes his mind. After Ellie's been on the road for a few days, Andrews realizes that the detectives he's hired aren't going to bring her in successfully, and so he has to make peace with the reality of her marriage to King.
But something still doesn't sit right, and so even after her return home, Andrews keeps questioning his daughter. He's worried about her and suspects that she's in love with someone else. When she spills the beans and says that she is, he's all for her marriage to the no-name Peter Warne.
This is another surprise, and another revelation: Andrews puts up no resistance when he senses that Ellie's heart is really in her choice of Warne. This contrasts with his reaction to her choice of King, whom Andrews labels a "fake."
And so the tyrant shows his true colors: He's not just interested in wielding power. Instead, he wants his little treasure Ellie to be happy and to enjoy a lifetime of love, even if the guy she chooses is basically poor.
King's his name, but he's definitely not royalty—at least outside of his own mind. The pilot's a showman and a shallow one at that. No one seems to like him—not even Ellie, his wife. This might sound pathetic, but really, King doesn't get enough screen time for us to pity him or really develop much of a relationship with him.
Mainly, King is a foil for Peter. His showiness and flightiness contrast with Peter's qualities: Peter's plain-spoken and super-duper down-to-earth, while King loves to make a spectacle of himself, for instance by flying into his own wedding in an autogyro.
At all times, King's self-obsessed, whereas Peter always has Ellie's safety in mind. So the opposition between the two men—Ellie's husband and her husband-to-be—makes the real love in the film shine that much brighter. There's no love lost between Ellie and King when she runs away from him at the marriage altar, because we've never seen any love between them to begin with. Poor King.
Then again, this guy totally gets his reward: He's paid off in the end—to the tune of $100,000. Nothing to sneeze at now, let alone in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression. Something tells us King Westley will probably love the moolah more than he would have loved Ellie…
The loud-mouthed dirt-bag Shapeley fulfills one main function: Like King Westley, he's a foil for Peter. But he also provides some comic relief during a pretty dark moment in It Happened One Night. First introduced just after Ellie and Peter have boarded the second bus they ride in the film, Shapeley's fast, inappropriately familiar talk contrasts with the silent treatment that the newly acquainted, New York-bound travelers, Ellie and Peter, are giving each other at that moment.
That Shapeley's no match for Peter is shown by how quickly he flees after he's intimidated by the newsman pretending to be a hardened gangster. Still, the fact that Shapeley figures out Ellie's identity means that he represents a real threat—and an obstacle to be overcome on the way to happiness.