Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
It Happened One Night (1934)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

During the continuation of their bus trip, Shapeley recognizes Ellie's face from another newspaper story: "DAUGHTER OF BANKER STILL MISSING: $10,000 REWARD OFFERED." A couple of musicians in the back of the bus sing and play "The Man on the Flying Trapeze." The passengers all spontaneously join in and sing different verses, becoming a community. Just as the bus driver adds his voice to the chorus, he neglects where he is driving and swerves off the road into the mud. Prying into things and guessing Ellie's identity, Shapeley wishes to get in on half of the $10,000 reward offered for reporting her location: "I don't believe in hogging it...Five G's or I crab the works."

To frighten him off, Peter pretends to be a underworld gangster/kidnapper abducting her for a ransom of "a million smackers" rather than the measley $10 thousand bucks:

I got a couple of machine guns in my suitcase. I'll let you have one of 'em. May have a little trouble up North. Have to shoot it out with the cops. But if you come through all right, those five G's are as good as in the bag, maybe more. I'll have a talk with the Killer, see that he takes care of ya....yeah, yeah, the big boy, the boss of the outfit.

Peter makes Shapeley "yellow," getting him to promise not to say anything by keeping his trap shut, in part by pretending to have a gun in his pocket, and by threatening him with an unlikely tale of a hitman named Bugs: "You ever hear of Bugs Dooley?...He was a nice guy, just like you. But he made a big mistake one day. Got a little too talkative. Do you know what happened to his kid?...Well, I can't tell you, but when Bugs heard about it, he blew his brains out."

Leaving the bus to avoid being recognized again, Peter decides to trek cross-country over the landscape with Ellie. He acts smugly about his ability as a male protector to take care of the helpless rich girl. He carries her slung over his shoulder across a moonlit stream. As he wades through the water, he teaches her yet another lesson on piggyback carrying, arguing with her about what it takes to be a "piggy-backer" - an ability that rich people don't have.

Ellie: You know this is the first time in years I've ridden piggy-back.
Peter: This isn't piggy-back.
Ellie: Course it is.
Peter: You're crazy.
Ellie: I remember distinctly my father taking me for a piggy-back ride.
Peter: And he carried you like this I suppose.
Ellie: Yes.
Peter: Your father didn't know beans about piggy-back riding.
Ellie: My uncle, mother's brother, has four children and I've seen them ride piggy-back.
Peter: I'll bet there isn't a good piggy-back rider in your whole family. I never knew a rich man yet who could piggy-back ride.
Ellie: You're prejudiced.
Peter: You show me a good piggy-backer and I'll show you a real human. Now you take Abraham Lincoln for instance. A natural born piggy-backer. Where do you get all of that stuffed-shirts family of yours?
Ellie: My father was a great piggy-backer. (He slaps her behind for that remark.)

That night in the famous "night in a haystack" scene, although Ellie is hungry and scared, they settle down on hay/straw in a deserted barn, and sleep apart from each other. [Cricket sounds in the background were dubbed in later - reportedly the first time that ambient sounds were added in after a shot.] As he prepares her bed of straw, in a scene filmed with luminescent lighting and gauzy close-ups of Ellie's face, Peter communicates his toughness and independence, but conceals his real emotional feelings for her:

Ellie: I'm hungry and - scared.
Peter: You can't be hungry and scared both at the same time.
Ellie: Well, I am.
Peter: If you're scared, it scares the hunger out of ya.
Ellie: Not if you're more hungry than scared.
Peter: All right, you win. Let's forget about it.
Ellie: I can't forget it. I'm still hungry.
Peter: Holy Smoke! Why did I ever get mixed up with you? If I had any sense, I'd be in New York by this time.
Ellie: What about your story?
Peter: Taking a married woman back to her husband. Hmm, mmm. I turned out to be the prize sucker. All right, come on. Your bed's all ready.
Ellie: I'll get my clothes all wrinkled.
Peter: Then take 'em off.
Ellie: What!?
Peter: All right, don't take 'em off. Do whatever you please, but shut up about it.

Thinking she is speaking to him (although he has walked off), she asserts her own independence and self-sufficiency:

You're becoming awful disagreeable lately. You just snap my head off every time I open my mouth. If being with me is so distasteful to you, you can leave. You can leave anytime you see fit. Nobody's holding you here. I can get along.

But when she turns and notices he has disappeared, she suddenly becomes frantic and fearful, screaming out his name and hugging him fiercely when he returns from getting food. Peter almost lets go and kisses her when he covers her with his overcoat for the night. Ellie is beginning to fall in love with him, and expectantly asks him a question:

Ellie: What are you thinking about?
Peter: By a strange coincidence, I was thinking of you.
Ellie: Really?
Peter: Yeah. I was just wondering what makes dames like you so dizzy. (A reflective tear shines in the corner of her eye, as they both bed down for the night in separate locations. The scene closes, with an iris-in fade-out effect, on Ellie's eye.)

The next morning, the pair take to the road, (shot from behind), with Ellie clutching her purse and limping next to Peter, who carries a suitcase and with his coat thrown over his shoulder. He tells her that it's too early to expect cars to come by:

Ellie: What do you say we're supposed to be doing?
Peter: Hitchhiking.
Ellie: Oh. Well, you've given me a very good example of the hiking. Where does the hitching come in?
Peter: A little early yet. No cars out.

So she turns to walk out of the shot to the right: "If it's just the same to you, I'm going to sit right here and wait til they come." Perched on a split-rail fence at the side of the road while waiting for cars to come by, she lets him pick a piece of hay out of her teeth with his penknife. She declines his offer of a raw carrot (cleaned with his penknife) for breakfast: "I forgot. The idea of offering a raw carrot to an Andrew. Hey, you don't think I'm going around panhandling for you, do ya? You'd better have one of these. The best thing in the world for you - carrots." Ellie is disgusted by them: "I hate the horrid things." [Reportedly, Gable was the inspiration for cartoon character Bugs Bunny's carrot-eating technique.]

In another film highlight, the film's most-remembered and funniest sequence, as he continues to chew and clean the raw carrot, they compare hitchhiking techniques to try to attract a ride on a rural highway. With a macho, know-it-all attitude, he brags about his expert knowledge, and his intention to write a book entitled: The Hitchhiker's Hail. This causes her to sneer and comment on his dubious skill: "There's no end to your accomplishments, is there?"

He lectures condescendingly at her, and confidently gives Ellie a detailed lecture on the three proper and correct ways that common people hail passing cars while thumb hitchhiking: "It's all in that ol' thumb, see?...that ol' thumb never fails. It's all a matter of how you do it, though."

  • Now, you take number one, for instance. That's a short, jerky movement like this - that shows independence, you don't care whether they stop or not. You've got money in your pocket, see...(Ellie responds: "Clever!")

  • But number two, that's a little wider movement - a smile goes with this one, like this, that means you've got a brand new story about the farmer's daughter...(Ellie responds: "Hmm, mmm. You figured that out all by yourself!")

  • Number three, that's the pits. Yeah, that's a pitiful one you know. When you're broke and hungry and everything looks black. It's a long sweeping movement like this, but you've got to follow through though...(Ellie responds: "Oh, that's amazing.") It's no good though, if you haven't got a long face to go with

As he demonstrates his professorial teachings in real action as cars comes by, she reclines - in an uncomfortable position - on the top rail of a fence at the side of the road, watching him but not convinced of his ability. He tries the first method on a sole car, prefacing his attempt: "Keep your eye on that thumb, baby, and see what happens," but it fails and the car drives right on by. Ellie makes a nasty side comment: "I still got my eye on the thumb." He thinks: "Something must have gone wrong."

When he suggests method number two, she quips with another wisecrack while laid out on the fence: "When you get to 100, wake me up." They watch over a dozen cars on the country road leave them in their dust without even slowing down as Peter tries every seductive variation of thumb-wagging in his repertoire. Peter thumbs his nose at the last car - his infallible methods with all three thumb-wagging techniques are totally unsuccessful and he is quickly deflated and defeated. He thumbs his nose at the final car: "I don't think I'll write that book after all."

So Ellie offers to give it a try, demonstrating her superior hitchhiking technique, but he mocks her proposal to do better with a snarl: "You? Don't make me laugh":

Ellie: Oh, you're such a smart alec. Nobody knows anything but you. I'll stop a car and I won't use my thumb.
Peter: What're you going to do?
Ellie: It's a system all my own.

Without using her thumb at all, she hops down off the fence, dusts herself off, ambles nonchalantly onto the side of the road, and provocatively raises her skirt above the knee, exposing a shapely, stockinged leg and garter. Her technique is immediately effective and the next car screeches to a halt - large closeups show a foot hitting the foot brake and a hand grabbing the hand brake.

After a wipe transition, they are in the back-seat of a Model T - Ellie looks smug and happy, but Peter next to her is downbeat. She asks for a little credit for her alternative thumb-less method:

Ellie: Aren't you going to give me a little credit?
Peter: What for?
Ellie: Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.
Peter: Why didn't you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.
Ellie (sarcastically retorting): Oh, I'll remember that when we need forty cars.

The driver (Alan Hale) who picked them up stops for a meal at a roadside cafe, and Peter insists that she not "gold-dig" him for a meal, but subsist on a meal of raw carrots with him instead: "If you do, I'll break your neck." While they step away from the car and Peter apologizes for threatening her, the driver of the car tries to steal Peter's suitcase by driving away without them. Peter runs after the car thief on foot, and later returns with the entire car (minus its driver), explaining how he obtained the car: "I gave him a black eye for it. I had to tie him up to a tree." They continue their journey in the stolen vehicle.

In a scene between Mr. Andrews and King Westley, Ellie's father approves of her marriage, and comes to an understanding with him: "I admit I'm licked. But it's only because I'm worried. If I don't find her soon, I'll go crazy...if she returns, I won't interfere with your marriage." Statements given to a roomful of reporters result in new headlines: "ANDREWS WITHDRAWS OBJECTION. Magnate and Aviator Reconciled - 'Everything All Right. Come Home, Darling,' Says Westley."

Only three hours drive outside of New York, fast-talking Peter is able to secure an overnight cottage in an auto-court, where he promises to pay the trusting proprietor Zeke (Arthur Hoyt) later for their supposed week's stay. Without Peter's knowledge, Ellie reads the newspaper with the headlines asking her to come home to Westley, but suddenly she has some regrets about the coming end of their relationship:

Peter: Well, we're on the last lap. Tomorrow morning, you'll be in the arms of your husband.
Ellie: Yeah. You'll have a great story won't you?
Peter: Yeah.

Peter hangs another "walls of Jericho" blanket on a line separating their two beds. From opposite sides of the blanket as they undress to prepare for bed, she is not as anxious as she was earlier to arrive at her destination:

Peter: Well, you certainly outsmarted your father. I guess you ought to be happy.
Ellie: Am I going to see you in New York?
Peter: Nope.
Ellie: Why not?
Peter: I don't make it a policy to run around with married women.
Ellie: No harm in your coming to see it.
Peter: Not interested.
Ellie: Will I ever see you again?
Peter (snapping back): What do you want to see me for? I've served my purpose. I brought you back to King Westley didn't I? That's what you wanted, wasn't it?

During the remainder of their conversation - still separated by the blanket while Ellie sits immobilized on her bed and Peter lies flat on his back on his bed, he delivers an idealistic speech. He expresses a visionary dream of a Pacific island paradise where social pressures and restrictions would disappear, and he could live with a woman and be a star-gazer in poetic isolation from the world's worries:

Ellie: Have you ever been in love, Peter?
Peter: Me?
Ellie: Yeah. Haven't you ever thought about it at all? Seems to me you, you could make some girl wonderfully happy.
Peter: Sure I've thought about it. Who hasn't? I never meet the right sort of girl. Aw, where you gonna find her? Somebody that's real. Somebody that's alive. They don't come that way anymore. I never thought about it. I've even been suckered enough to make plans. I saw an island in the Pacific once. I've never been able to forget it. That's where I'd like to take her. She'd have to be the sort of a girl who'd jump in the surf with me and love it as much as I did. Nights when you and the moon and the water all become one. You feel you're part of something big and marvelous. That's the only place to live. The stars are so close over your head you feel you could reach up and stir them around. Certainly, I've been thinking about it. Boy, if I could ever find a girl who was hungry for those things...

Enchanted, Ellie creeps around and emerges on his side of the blanket to offer herself. She is wet-eyed and in love with Peter's romantic description of an idyllic island and a girl "hungry for those things." She inwardly yearns for and admires his down-to-earth approach to life, but he is taken aback by her love for him:

Ellie: Take me with you, Peter. Take me to your island. I want to do all those things you talked about.
Peter: You'd better go back to your bed.
Ellie: I love you. Nothing else matters. We can run away. Everything will take care of itself. Please Peter, I can't let you out of my life now. I couldn't live without you. (She weeps and cries in his arms, totally submissive to him.)
Peter: You'd better go back to your bed.
Ellie: Sorry. (Returning to her own bed, she cries herself to sleep on her pillow.)

Later, sitting up in bed, pondering what she has proposed, Peter accepts the idea of her love: "Hey, brat. Did you mean that? Would you really go?" When she doesn't respond, he peers over the top of the blanket and sees her asleep.

He quietly dresses and sneaks away, [hocks his hat to get money for gas], drives to New York, types up his story, confronts his former city editor Joe Gordon, and demands $1,000 scoop money for his "biggest scoop of the year" on the Andrews kid - "all written up and ready to go." The money, he explains, is "to tear down the walls of Jericho" - to justify proposing marriage to Ellie and starting out right together without being penniless:

Peter: Supposin' I was to tell you that Ellen Andrews was going to have her marriage annulled...She's going to marry somebody else...Would a story like that would be worth a thousand bucks to you...I got it, Joe.
Joe: Who's the guy she's gonna marry?
Peter: I am, Joe.

Insisting that he is "on the level" and not drunk, Peter convinces Gordon that he is telling the truth:

I met her on a bus coming from Miami. I've been with her every minute. I'm in love with her, Joe...You gotta get me this money now. Quick. Minutes count. She's waiting for me in an autocamp, just outside Philadelphia. I gotta get right back. You see, she doesn't even know I'm gone. You know, a guy can't propose to a gal without a cent in the world, can he?

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