Study Guide

It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night Summary

The young heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) narrowly escapes from her overbearing father, jumping off a cruise ship and swimming to shore. She's upset because her dad won't let her live with King Wesley, even though she has already married him… against her father's wishes.

On land, Ellie meets newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) while riding the night bus northward from Miami to New York. She keeps her identity secret because her father is already searching for her. Warne is onto her but says that he'll keep Ellie's identity secret, since her whole socialite set is just "a lot of hooey" to him. Ellie offers Peter money to keep quiet, but he refuses, saying he'll help just because.

Antics ensue as Peter and Ellie get involved in mishap after mishap. Ellie's bag is stolen, leaving her with only $4 for the whole voyage. She then misses the bus—luckily, Peter waits for her.

Well, the next bus our pair of travelers board has to stop because of a bridge closed due to flooding. This forces Ellie and Peter to spend a night together, since space in the nearby "auto camp," or campground with cabins, is limited. Peter pretends to be Ellie's husband to prevent her from being recognized. This offends her at first, but she makes peace with the arrangement after Peter puts up a barrier to separate their two twin beds: In the middle of the room, he hangs a blanket that he calls "the Walls of Jericho."

The next morning, detectives sent by Ellie's father to search for her arrive at the campground. To evade them, Peter and Ellie put on a show, pretending to be loudly squabbling spouses. Their performance is convincing enough to send the detectives away, but it's also great fun for Peter and Ellie, who discover that they both love hamming it up. Meanwhile, Ellie's worried father continues to search high and low for her.

Back on the bus, a sing-along's in progress, and everyone gets along swimmingly until the distracted bus driver swerves and crashes. No one's hurt, but everyone's shaken up, including a mother and son who are faint with hunger: They've spent all their money on bus tickets and can't afford to buy food. Ellie gives them the last bit of money she has left.

Peter has to pretend to be a tough guy to scare away a fellow bus-rider, Shapeley, who's onto Ellie and who threatens to reveal her identity. Peter deals with this threat and sends Shapeley away. But Shapeley's threats—and the possibility that Ellie might be found out if the scaredy cat spills the beans when he gets to where he's going—force the two partners-in-secrecy, Ellie and Peter, to break away from the broken-down bus and its passengers.

Peter and Ellie are on foot now, making a quick off-road getaway and even crossing a river until they stop for the night on haystacks near a farm. (Still no rolls in the hay for these two, though—at least not yet.) Ellie complains about being both afraid and hungry and tells Peter that he's getting grouchy. She also says he can leave whenever he wants. Nevertheless, when he leaves to fetch food, and she mistakenly thinks he's left for good, she panics. We sense that she's falling in love, and Peter seems to be softening up, too.

Still, Peter delivers a lecture about all that's wrong with Ellie and people like her: rich people who don't know what they want, or what's really important in life. Ellie takes this in without responding.

The next day, the two runaways are still hungry, and they're hitchhiking. Peter mansplains how to hitchhike, but Ellie turns out to be much better at waving down passing cars. Unfortunately, the first stranger to give them a lift turns out to be a dud—more specifically, a "road thief." He drives away with their suitcases and only gives them up after an off-screen fight with Peter.

Meanwhile, Ellie's father makes a deal with King Westley, the man Ellie has already married. Instead of standing in the way of the marriage, Andrews will get out of the way, since this should make Ellie come home. Andrews publicizes this decision in the papers and even has King Westley give a press conference to announce that he and Andrews have reached an agreement.

In the next scene, Ellie reads all about this agreement in the newspaper. Although she and Peter are finally approaching New York, they spend one more night away together. Peter tricks the keeper of another campground into thinking that he and Ellie are going to stay a week so that they won't have to pay for the room, which they're planning to leave the next morning. While Peter puts up "the Walls of Jericho" again, Ellie asks whether she'll see him back in New York. He says no, because he doesn't "make it a policy to run around with married women."

This devastates Ellie, who tearfully declares her love for Peter. But when he asks if she means what she's just said, she's already asleep. He decides to take matters into his own hands and sneak away to New York. Here he tells Gordon, his boss at the newspaper, that he has exclusive access to a story: One about how Ellie Andrews isn't really going to marry King Westley. When Gordon asks whom she's going to marry, Peter says she's going to marry him. He also asks Gordon to lend him $1,000 "to tear down the Walls of Jericho," and he says that he's in love with Ellie.

Back at the campground, the owner and his nagging wife discover that Peter has fled with the suitcase (which we've seen him sell for gas money), leaving Ellie all alone. Since Ellie has no money to cover the cost of the room, the owners kick her to the curb—literally. They won't even let her use their phone to call New York.

Gordon lends Peter the money he asked for and looks forward to publishing the sensational story of Ellie's new marriage. But just after the editor has ordered the folks in his office to stop the presses, he gets a call from someone who tells him that Ellie has contacted her father, who's ordered the police to escort her back to New York so that she can be married to King Westley after all.

On his way back to the campground, Peter sees Ellie with the police escort and realizes that he has just missed her. Dejected, he returns to the office to give Gordon's money back. All the newspapers are already announcing Ellie's upcoming marriage to Westley.

But at the Andrewses', Ellie's father can tell that she's not looking forward to the wedding at all. She comes clean, admitting that she's in love with a man named Peter Warne, who thinks she's a spoiled brat and who judges Ellie's father, too, for the way he raised her. Andrews recognizes Peter's name because he has just received a letter from him requesting a meeting "about a financial matter in connection with Ellie."

Both Ellie and her father assume that this means Peter only cares about the $10,000 reward that Andrews was offering in exchange for Ellie's safe return. In fact, though, when Peter appears in Andrews's office, he only asks for $39.60. This shows that he doesn't care about money. He shows no interest whatsoever in the reward, and when Ellie's father finally asks straight-up whether he's in love with Ellie, Peter admits that he is.

Ellie eventually summons the courage to leave King Westley at the altar. This is all the more embarrassing for the showy aviator since he has made his arrival at the wedding into a spectacle, flying in and landing an autogyro to wow the guests. Too bad for him, he's lost the game.

In the end, we don't see Ellie and Peter, but we know they're on their honeymoon. We hear the campground's owners talking, and it's clear from their references to blankets and an annulment that, as in the Bible, the "Walls of Jericho" are finally coming down.

  • Scene 1

    Scene 1

    • On a small cruise ship sailing calm and sunny waters, we learn that Ellie Andrews is on a hunger strike.
    • Ellie's refusing her meals, and the ship's whole crew is afraid of her.
    • Ellie father, the obviously wealthy Alexander Andrews, decides to confront her himself.
    • Ellie still refuses to eat and angrily explains to her father that she won't eat anything until he quits "running her life" and lets her be with the man she has already married: King Westley.
    • Andrews calls King Westley a fool and says Ellie's made a mistake by marrying him.
    • Ellie accuses Andrews of holding her prisoner and reminds him that he abducted her "outside the justice of the peace." Apparently, her own father has kidnapped her.
    • Andrews says that he's taking Ellie to South America and that as soon as the crew can get some supplies on board, they'll leave Miami.
    • Andrews says Ellie should get her marriage annulled. He calls King Westley, her new husband, "a fake" and says that she's married him just to upset her old dad.
    • Ellie says that King's not a businessman, like Andrews, but that at least he has "accomplished something worthwhile," rather than only accumulate money.
    • Ellie gets so angry that she jumps off the boat, disappearing from view.
    • Andrews sends out a message to a detective agency: "Daughter escaped again." He says that he wants her back "at all costs!"
  • Scenes 2 and 3

    Scenes 2 and 3

    • Ellie buys a bus ticket. She's headed for New York and is already having to sneak past detectives.
    • In the same bus station, we meet Peter Warne, who's on the phone drunkenly yelling at his boss.
    • The film cuts to the boss, an editor at a New York newspaper, who's having none of Warne's shenanigans.
    • Back at the bus station, Warne pretends to tell off his boss… hiding the fact that he's actually been fired.
  • Scene 4

    Scene 4

    • Peter and Ellie meet for the first time aboard the northbound bus.
    • Ellie takes Peter's seat while he's in an argument with the driver.
    • Ellie and Peter end up sitting extra close because Peter then squeezes into the seat next to Ellie.
    • Things get off to a rocky start between the film's two leads. They've only just met and already they're bickering.
  • Scene 5

    Scene 5

    • At a rest stop, Ellie's bag gets stolen while she's not looking.
    • Peter runs after the thief but can't catch him.
    • Ellie still has her ticket, but her money was in the bag, so she's left with only four dollars to get from Florida (where the bus still is) all the way to New York (where hubby King Westley's waiting).
    • Peter offers to report the theft, but Ellie asks him not to, since she wants to keep her whereabouts secret.
    • This leads Peter to call Ellie an "ungrateful brat."
  • Scenes 6 and 7

    Scenes 6 and 7

    • Back in the bus, Ellie finds another seat to avoid Peter.
    • Ellie returns to her old seat, though, when she realizes that her new seatmate snores up a storm.
    • Ellie falls asleep on Peter's shoulder and sleeps like a baby until morning.
    • At the morning rest stop in Jacksonville, Ellie gets off and takes her time, assuming that the bus driver will ignore his schedule and wait for her. She acts like an oblivious rich girl.
    • The bus leaves without Ellie, but Peter waits at the station to let her know it's gone. He also has her ticket, which she left on the seat, making it clear that she's not very good at looking after herself.
    • Peter lets Ellie know that he's figured out who she is.
    • Ellie tries to bribe Peter, offering him as much money as he wants.
    • Peter says he's not interested in money and delivers a lecture about how Ellie and people like her—spoiled people—are all "a lot of hooey" to him.
  • Scenes 8 and 9

    Scenes 8 and 9

    • Peter sends a telegram to his boss, Gordon, even though the guy has just fired him. Peter says he's found "the biggest scoop of the year," but he doesn't reveal what the big story's about.
    • Twelve hours later, Peter and Ellie are on the same bus again.
    • This time, Ellie's seated next to a serious talker, who introduces himself right away as Shapeley.
    • Shapeley's not only a big talker, he's also a perv, and he starts coming on to Ellie hard right away.
    • Seeing this, Peter comes to Ellie's aid, pretending to be her husband.
    • This embarrasses the sicko Shapeley, who backs off right away and apologizes.
    • Peter tells Ellie that he hasn't done this to protect her; he just couldn't stand the sound of Shapeley's voice. We can't be sure he's telling the whole truth, though.
    • Ellie tries to buy a box of chocolates, but Peter prevents her, saying it would be a waste of money.
    • Peter then takes charge of Ellie's remaining cash—only $1.60. "You're on a budget from now on," he declares. It's probably the first time she's ever been on one.
  • Scenes 10 and 11

    Scenes 10 and 11

    • Late at night, the bus is stopped by two policemen, who warn that the bus won't be able to continue on its way until morning. The road's closed, they say, due to flooding.
    • Peter then finds a cabin in a roadside campground and tells Ellie that they'll be staying there for the night.
    • Peter has pretended to be Ellie's husband; this way, they can share a cabin and save money.
    • Ellie gets offended, thinking that Peter's sneakily trying to sleep with her.
    • But Peter sets Ellie straight, explaining that she's "just a headline" to him, someone whose exclusive story he intends to write after he escorts her back to New York and King Westley.
    • Peter threatens to turn Ellie over to her father if she doesn't cooperate with his plan.
    • Peter then hangs a blanket on a string between their two beds, calling it "the Walls of Jericho." "Maybe not as thick as the ones that Joshua blew down with his trumpet," he says, "but a lot safer. You see, I have no trumpet."
    • Peter also lends Ellie his pajamas.
    • Ellie's still hesitant, but to get her over to her side of the cabin, Peter starts undressing in front of her.
    • Ellie rushes away to her side, where she undresses. The sexual tension in the room is palpable.
    • Before they fall asleep, Ellie asks what Peter's name is, and he finally tells her.
  • Scene 12

    Scene 12

    • In a plane, pilots joke about how awful it would be to be married to a "wild cat" like Ellie.
    • In the cabin of the plane, Ellie's father, Alexander Andrews, hears a report from a member of his staff, who notes that Ellie's nowhere to be found.
    • Andrews complains about the detectives' incompetence and says he's in a rush to get back to New York.
    • Andrews's assistant says he hopes that nothing will happen to Ellie, but when asked by Andrews what he means, the assistant's too afraid to answer with anything specific.
  • Scenes 13-15

    Scenes 13-15

    • The next morning, Ellie wakes up to find Peter already dressed and making breakfast.
    • Peter gives Ellie a toothbrush, then tells her to hurry up and shower.
    • Ellie dawdles, but then she hurries out the door.
    • Ellie's obviously never been in a campground before. She doesn't get in line but heads straight for the shower, where she opens the door on someone, who, outraged, sends her away.
    • Ellie takes her place in line, then finally showers.
    • On her way back to the cabin, Ellie runs into Shapeley, the perv from the bus.
    • Shapeley apologizes, but Ellie doesn't accept, and she sends him away.
    • Back at the cabin, Peter has finished making coffee, a donut, and one egg for each of them.
    • Ellie eats enthusiastically.
    • Peter corrects Ellie's donut-dunking technique.
    • Ellie tells Peter that her life's really not all that free, since she's constantly being monitored by her father's staff. She has made a game, she says, of trying to evade them and steal some time for herself.
    • Two detectives sent by Ellie's father then visit the cabin, looking for Ellie.
    • Ellie and Peter pretend to a husband and wife who are deep in a fight to fake out the detectives.
    • The detectives are fooled. They apologize and leave.
    • After the detectives are gone, Peter and Ellie laugh at how much fun they had playacting to fool the detectives. They really got into it, and joke that they should take their show on the road.
  • Scene 16

    Scene 16

    • Peter's boss, Gordon, gets another telegram from Peter, telling him that the story's "getting hotter and hotter."
    • Gordon says he won't accept any more telegrams from Peter, who always sends them collect.
  • Scene 17

    Scene 17

    • Meanwhile, Andrews remains dissatisfied and can't believe that his daughter still hasn't been found by the detectives he's put on the case.
    • Andrews decides to offer a reward of $10,000 for "any information leading to [Ellie's] whereabouts."
    • Andrews also says that the reward should be published in the newspapers, together with a picture of Ellie.
  • Scene 18

    Scene 18

    • On the road again in the bus, Shapeley sees the picture of Ellie and reads furtively about the reward being offered.
    • For their part, Ellie and Peter seem to be having the time of their lives. There's singing and dancing aboard the bus, and the two new friends are singing along.
    • At one point, the bus driver even joins the chorus, but the bus lands in a ditch by the side of the road, caught in the mud.
    • At first, unfazed, Ellie and Peter continue to play around, but then they're caught off-guard by a boy whose mother seems to have fainted.
    • The boy explains that they haven't eaten anything since the day before because they had to spend all their money on bus tickets.
    • Ellie asks Peter for money, then gives the boy the only dollar that she has left.
    • Peter's impressed.
  • Scene 19

    Scene 19

    • Outside the bus that's still stuck on the side of the road, Shapeley approaches Peter and shows him the newspaper story about Ellie, offering to split the reward with him.
    • Peter takes the man aside, then pretends to be a gangster who's already planning to take advantage of the reward.
    • Peter scares Shapely by talking about the machine guns he's carrying and "the Killer," the kingpin or "boss of the outfit," with whom he'll put Shapely in touch.
    • Shapeley runs away, scared out of his mind, but Peter realizes that he and Ellie won't be safe for long: Shapeley can still report Ellie's whereabouts from a distance.
    • Peter tells Ellie they have to run away, and that's what they do.
  • Scenes 20 and 21

    Scenes 20 and 21

    • Peter suggests that Ellie wire her father, but she refuses.
    • Peter tells Ellie they don't have any money left, since Ellie gave it all to the boy, and so they won't be able to eat.
    • Peter gives Ellie a piggyback ride across a river and criticizes the piggybacking techniques of the rich.
    • The two travelers find some haystacks to sleep on near a farm.
    • Ellie complains of hunger and says she's scared. Peter says if she's really scared, then she can't be hungry at the same time. She says she's both.
    • Peter prepares a bed for Ellie but is frustrated and snaps at her before going in search of food.
    • Ellie doesn't realize that Peter's gone to look for food, so she keeps talking, saying that she can get along just fine on her own. Then she turns to find that he's gone, and she thinks he's left for good.
    • When Peter returns, Ellie's overwhelmed with relief. She's also too scared now to be hungry, and so doesn't want the watermelon Peter has found.
    • This frustrates Peter, who then delivers a monologue about all that's wrong with the rich. Peter says that what's important isn't money or "manufactured values," but just "peace and calm."
    • Ellie listens silently.
  • Scenes 22-24

    Scenes 22-24

    • Peter and Ellie are hitchhiking now.
    • Peter thinks he knows how to hitchhike better then Ellie, but he can't flag down a car, although he tries several times.
    • Then all Ellie has to do is show some leg and she stops the first car that sees her.
    • The car's driven by a crazy guy who loves to sing loudly. He mistakes Peter and Ellie for lovebirds, then sings a song about how "young people in love are never hungry."
    • Ellie's still hungry, but Peter doesn't let her accept the driver's offer to get her some food.
    • While Ellie and Peter are off arguing, the driver hurries away with the car, which has Peter's suitcase in it.
    • Peter rushes after the driver. We see him return with a cut-up face; he's been in a fight with the driver—a "road thief"—and he won.
    • Peter drives Ellie away, noting that they'll have to bargain for gas with what's left in his pockets.
  • Scene 25

    Scene 25

    • Andrews meets with King Westley.
    • Andrews says he's never liked Westley but is desperate to see Ellie again.
    • Andrews has publicized a statement saying that he's withdrawn his objection to Westley's marriage to Ellie. But still he hasn't heard from his daughter.
    • That's why he called Westley into his office today, Andrews explains, asking his son-in-law to tell the reporters assembled in the next room that Andrews means it.
    • Ellie doesn't trust her father after the stunt he pulled at the marriage ceremony and on the boat. So Andrews says Westley needs to back up his story.
    • Westley agrees, and he enters the room full of reporters.
  • Scenes 26 and 27

    Scenes 26 and 27

    • Ellie reads about her father's announcement in the paper.
    • Peter says that he's convinced the owner of another "auto camp" to let him and Ellie have a room for the night, even though Peter couldn't pay upfront.
    • Peter wonders why they don't drive to New York, since they're so close, but Ellie says she wants to stay away and head into the city the next morning.
    • We then see the camp's owner's wife yelling at her husband for letting the two newcomers take the room. She suspects they'll "walk out" without paying.
  • Scene 28

    Scene 28

    • Back in the cabin, Peter tells Ellie that she'll be in the arms of her husband the next day.
    • Ellie asks Peter whether they'll see each other back in New York; Peter says no.
    • Then Ellie asks if Peter's ever been in love. Again, Peter says no, but he admits he's thought about settling down if he finds "the right sort of girl": "The sort of girl who'd jump into the surf with me on moonlit nights—and love it as much as I did."
    • Ellie says she wants to be that girl, declares her love for Peter, and then breaks down crying.
    • Peter points out that Ellie's already married, but Ellie says she doesn't care.
    • Peter then tells Ellie she should go back to bed.
    • Peter thinks for a while, then asks Ellie if she meant what she said—but by this point, she has cried herself to sleep.
    • Peter gets an idea and leaves the cabin, taking his suitcase with him.
  • Scenes 29 and 30

    Scenes 29 and 30

    • Peter sells the suitcase to a gas station attendant in exchange for gas. He then heads to the newspaper office where he types out his story.
    • Peter pitches the story to his boss, the editor Gordon. He tells Gordon that Ellie's not going to marry King Westley; instead, she's going to marry Peter.
    • Peter says he's in love with Ellie.
    • Peter asks Gordon to lend him $1,000 so that he can propose to Ellie, since "a guy can't propose to a girl without a cent in the world."
    • Incredulous at first, Gordon starts to get excited about the amazing story that Peter has just told—and sold—him.
  • Scene 31

    Scene 31

    • The campground owner's wife convinces her husband to go check the room to see whether Peter and Ellie have run off in the middle of the night, as predicted.
    • The owner and his wife find Ellie asleep, but they wake her and show her that Peter's car is gone, and his suitcase, too.
    • Ellie says that Peter will be back, but the owner and his wife assume that Ellie's a prostitute and send her away from the hotel in shame. They don't even let her use their phone to call New York; they send her to the sheriff's office instead.
  • Scenes 32 and 33

    Scenes 32 and 33

    • Cut to Gordon's office again, where Peter's thanking his boss for the loan.
    • "What a yarn!" Gordon exclaims. He's been convinced of Peter's story.
    • But just after has he told his staff to stop the presses, Gordon gets a call informing him that Ellie Andrews is on her way back to New York.
    • Enraged, Gordon cancels the change that he's just made to the next day's headlines and he sends out "a general alarm" about Peter Warne.
    • Meanwhile, on the road, Andrews is in a rush to get back to Ellie.
    • Andrews beats Peter to her, and just when the excited man-in-love thinks he's about to propose, he sees Andrews with Ellie in his car and a whole police escort headed to New York, the city he's just come from.
    • This is such a bummer. Peter has just missed true love; she has slipped through his fingers.
  • Scene 34

    Scene 34

    • Dejected, Peter returns to the newspaper office and gives Gordon's money back to him.
    • Although he has been furious with Peter, Gordon senses as soon as he sees the reporter that he's down, lovesick, and stood up.
    • So, taking pity, Gordon tells Peter to sober up and come talk to him when he's ready.
  • Scene 35

    Scene 35

    • At the Andrews estate, Andrews warns King about Ellie's feistiness.
    • King says he can handle it, then tells Andrews that he plans to make a showy entrance on the day of his wedding to Ellie: He's going to fly in an autogyro and land near the assembled guests.
    • Andrews clearly thinks this is preposterous, but he shrugs it off and sends Westley away.
    • Andrews then goes into Ellie's room to talk to her.
    • Ellie's bored and distracted and generally very down.
    • Prompted by her father, Ellie confesses that she's in love with someone she met on the road. His name, she says, is Peter Warne.
    • Reluctantly, Andrews shows his daughter a letter that he's just received from Peter, requesting a meeting "about a financial matter in connection with" Ellie.
    • Ellie assumes that this means Peter's only interested in the reward her father was offering.
    • King then enters the room, and Andrews leaves.
    • Ellie tells King that she's heard about the wedding-day stunt he's planned, and that she approves. She says she's excited for the life of adventure that they're going to lead together. But her tone is less than convincing.
  • Scenes 36 and 37

    Scenes 36 and 37

    • Andrews and Peter arrange an appointment by phone. Then they meet in Andrews's office while a wedding party's raging.
    • To Andrews's surprise, Peter asks for $39.60, showing an itemized list of costs from the trip with Ellie. But when Andrews brings up the $10,000 reward, Peter says sincerely that he's not interested.
    • Andrews asks Peter if he's in love with Ellie, and although Peter has critical things to say about her—and about Andrews's parenting—he finally admits it to Pop Andrews's face: He's in love with Ellie.
    • On his way out, Peter runs into Ellie, who's busy partying, but he only exchanges some snide words with her.
    • When Andrews tries to tell her what's just happened, Ellie says she doesn't want to hear anything about Peter.
  • Scene 38

    Scene 38

    • Wedding day: King Westley lands on the lawn in his autogyro. It's as ridiculous as it sounds.
    • Walking her down the aisle, Andrews tells Ellie that she's "a sucker to go through with" the ceremony. He tells her that Peter only asked for $39.60, and he offers to buy off King Westley if Ellie will agree to "make [her] old man happy." But Ellie remains silent.
    • A minister asks if anyone has any objections to the marriage; then he asks King if he takes Ellie for his wife.
    • King says, "I do."
    • Then the minister asks Ellie if she takes King for her husband, but rather than reply, Ellie runs away, to everyone's dismay.
    • Andrews smiles knowingly.
  • Scenes 39 and 40

    Scenes 39 and 40

    • On the phone, Andrews tells King that he has sent a check for $100,000. He says that it was smart for King not to contest the annulment.
    • Andrews then gets a telegram from Peter, who's asking what's holding up the annulment and warning that the "Walls of Jericho" are toppling. "Let 'em topple," Andrews replies.
    • At another campground, the owner's wife says to her husband that a "funny couple" is staying in the cabin. The couple asked her for rope and a blanket, she says, wondering what they wanted those things for.
    • The owner says that they showed him the marriage license, so he knows they're married for sure. He also says that he's just brought them a trumpet.
    • "But what in the world do they want a trumpet for?" the owner's wife wonders.
    • We see the cabin lit from within. Then we hear a trumpet blast and see the lights go out.
    • The last thing we see is "a blanket dropping to the floor."
    • "The Walls of Jericho" have fallen, at last.