This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.

Excerpts from a discussion of
It Happened One Night
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As in so many of Capra's films, the only thing that saves Peter and Ellie from their own misguided efforts at self-defense is the emotional confusion they generate in each other. It is only by virtue of their mutually induced bewilderment that the psychological, social, and stylistic barriers behind which they try to protectively immure themselves are undermined. The sexual "walls of Jericho" (in the form of a blanket that separates their beds in several motel rooms) do suddenly come tumbling down at the end of the film, but the far more important walls in the film are the stylistic walls that Peter and Ellie erect around themselves, which are comically chipped away at in the course of it. Both of them begin the film by deliberately fleeing from the narrow, restrictive roles imposed upon them by others, Ellie fleeing from her father's authority, Peter from his editor's–only, in effect, to typecast themselves in a series of equally rigid and confining new roles as they board the bus to New York. It is by dint of bouncing off each other (literally and figuratively) on a three-day bus trip that they stimulate productive doubts and confusions in each other and in themselves and gradually learn to move away from their initial states of stylistic mastery and psychological complacency. They worry each other into creativity.

This is exactly where a Hawks screwball comedy would end: Unpredictability and eccentricity would have been allowed in to loosen up and lubricate other wise rigid and confining social performances. This is also where most accounts of Capra's films stop. This, however, is where Capra's idealistic form of screwball comedy differs from the garden-variety Hollywood form. Capra suggests that even these new performances, however iconoclastic they may be, are themselves still potentially only further dead ends to development, traps for the free imagination, or if not dead ands and traps, then still only rather frivolous and trivial expressions of the self. His films stand as a radical critique of the aesthetic premises of the Hawks and Lubitsch comedies. One must move beyond these new social roles, but how does one move beyond the limitations of all social roles, beyond all technical acting performances?

Of course, one way of remaining free from limiting styles and confining roles is to adopt Peter's initial cynicism about all social relationships and commitments. As in so many of Capra's other films, from Platinum Blonde on, the reporter character is a representation of postmodern man in all his glory and despair. He is someone who, by virtue of his occupation, has become an ideal deconstructionist of all of the texts of his own society. In being able to circulate freely through his society's various social, political, and institutional special-interest groups, as a reporter, he has recognized the arbitrariness and artificiality of their codes of behavior. Indeed, that truth has made him free. Yet however dazzling his freedom and mobility may seem, they, like that of all literary and cultural deconstructionists, are earned at the price of sacrificing moral and social involvement and belief, and with them the possibility of enduring personal or moral commitment. The postmodernist figure is, like Peter at the beginning of the film, the playful, detached, master of all roles and movements, except those that would compel him to sacrifice this mastery and movement–such as intimacy, commitment, or love of another human being.

In the largest sense, Capra forces his master performers in these films to acknowledge deeper emotional needs and commitment that bring their consummate mastery of performance, their brilliantly mercurial shifts of tones and styles, into question. They are compelled to realize that they have selves underneath all of the roles that may not be satisfied or expressed by them. Although Peter is not as extreme a case as Florence Fallon, Capra suggests that he too has ideals and feelings that are not being expressed by his virtuosic social and theatrical powers of performance. His capacities to "play" (socially and theatrically) make him wonderfully entertaining, but Capra wants to suggest that there is a self (or a set of beliefs and desires) underneath all of the play that is separate from it, and ultimately not satisfied by it.

Consider the scene in the hayfield, which comes about twenty five minutes after the one in the motel. Peter and Ellie have been forced off the bus by a breakdown and have been trekking cross-country, with Peter playing to the hilt the role of the cocky, wisecracking male protector to which he has repeatedly reverted. (He has been protecting himself from emotional vulnerability by hiding behind a series of wisecracks and sarcastic remarks, giving Ellie lessons in donut dunking and piggyback carrying, just as he will on the following morning give her one on hitchhiking.) Ellie is playing the role she habitually assumes of independent, liberated, unshockable woman. The point Capra is making is how far from being truly exploratory or creative this role playing is. (Though most audiences seem to find it hilarious, I must say that it is not even very funny, in my opinion, but increasingly tedious.) Their behavior is, in brief, only a form of social wall building and emotional self-protection.

Capra's photographic and acoustic additions to the mere script of the film–what is expressible in terms of the plot and dialogue–become his way of gesturing beneath the fairly superficial social and theatrical text, or even, at times, of indicating the irrelevance of everything we are watching being played out on the social surface of events. This passional, stylistic subtext is brought into existence through Capra's use of effects of lighting and sound that are the rough equivalent of Joyce's mimetic shift to poetic language and aurality. There are, at important moments in Capra's work, in effect, two films superimposed one on top of another: the obvious one, which we can, for convenience, call the text of the dialogue and plot, and a quite different emotional subtext that is frequently covered up or hidden by the first text. The part of the film represented by the smart chat, comic routines, and games between Peter and Ellie is, we are made aware, all a dodge, an evasion of an emotional and imaginative subtext that neither character wants to be the first to disclose to the other. In the haystack scene, all the while Peter and Ellie are emoting about their toughness and independence, Capra's lighting on the haystacks and cornfields and on Ellie's hair and face, the gauzed close-ups of her face, and, most of all, the registration on the sound tack of all of the pregnant pauses and silences between the two of them communicate the opposite of their toughness, independence, and self-sufficiency.

The most important scenes in It Happened One Night redirect our attention away from the actions and social interactions taking place and toward something else that is apparently expressible only by the pauses between the words, the tones of voice used, the quality of the light on a character's face. The sounds in the background, or the musical orchestration on the sound track. At such emotionally charged moments the characters often are saying or doing nothing, or nothing very important–are silent, passive, or merely staring thoughtfully into the distance, in reverie or meditation–and we, too, shift into a meditative state....

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.