In Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy “It Happened One Night,” the two main characters, Ellie and Peter, end up spending a few days together and it turns into an adventure of a lifetime. Ellie runs away from her controlling father who has her cooped up on a ship in an effort to keep her away from her new husband, King Wesley. Peter loses his journalist job and ends up sitting next to Ellie on a northbound bus to New York. At first she makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with him, but he realizes that she is the daughter of a well-known wealthy mogul, and makes an effort to stick around. He waits for her when he knows she is going to miss the bus, and then their adventure begins. There are several instances where the two have heart to heart conversations throughout the process of getting to know each other. They are very honest with one another, which facilitates their descent into love. However, they have to be dishonest and deceptive with the other people whom they run into along their journey in order to keep Ellie’s identity hidden and to get to their destination. Although Ellie and Peter are honest people, Capra primarily expresses the idea that using deception is the way to be successful.
The first instance of deception in the movie happens when we first meet Peter. He is on the phone with his boss from the newspaper, who is reprimanding him for writing a creative story that is arguably not newsworthy. Peter is surrounded in the phone booth by other drunk men who are presumably his friends. We as the audience see that his boss fires Peter and hangs up the phone. Peter does not want the others to know that, so he continues to talk on the phone and make it sound like he is giving his boss a piece of his mind, and quitting rather than being fired. Then the other men surround Peter as he is walking out and they say “make way for the king” while throwing cash around. This is how we know that these men are his friends, or at least that they look up to him and respect his character. Since this is Peter’s introductory scene, it establishes his character that is built upon throughout the story. His image becomes a respectable person who makes the best out of bad situations, and who will do anything to get his way or at least to appear as though he does. Deception is a skill that Peter is introduced to the audience with, that he utilizes throughout the story in order to get all of the things that he needs and wants along the way, including Ellie.
Initially Ellie is not good at being deceptive, but as the movie progresses, she gets increasingly good at it. Ellie is introduced as a strong female character, although when we first meet her she is being held captive by her father. She refuses to eat and she throws all of the food off the table, and then she flees from the ship and swims to shore where she catches a bus. She is disobedient and has a childlike rashness, but she is far from naïve. In order to remain hidden and escape her father, Ellie sets out to deceive everyone whom she meets. Once Peter figures out who she is, however, she allows him into her life and recognizes that she needs him to help her if she is going to make it to New York. Other people begin to recognize her because there are many articles published in the newspapers that people on the bus have access to at each stop. She also has a hard time blending in because she is used to extreme privilege. Not only is she a white woman but she also is the daughter of a very wealthy and well-known man, so she has every sort of privilege except being male. This is why Peter is able to be successful, but Ellie needs to have a man’s help in order to succeed. The deep-rooted fundamentals of privilege are excruciatingly prevalent throughout the movie, but they reflect the time in which it was created. Ellie’s privilege makes it hard for her to survive because she thought the bus was going to wait for her, and she would not eat the carrot at first, among other things. She had to learn how to hide and to be deceptive by watching Peter.
Ellie has to be deceptive in a subtler way as well. She falls in love with Peter, but she is married to King Wesley already. Ellie believes that getting back to Wesley is her only option, so she has to mask her feelings for Peter. She needs him to stick around to help her, so she has to put up a front around him. It is not until she asks him what he is looking for in a soul mate, and he answers that it would be a woman whom he could bring to an island and live carefree, that she admits to him that she loves him. She is not successful at keeping this hidden, and therefore she does not reach success. He tells her to go to bed, and ignores her sentiment. It could be argued that in the end Ellie and Peter end up together so she is ultimately successful, but in this particular scene we see an example of the inability to be deceptive leading to defeat.
Peter has numerous opportunities to show Ellie by example how to be deceptive. There are three major instances when Peter uses deception to get what they need. The first is when the other bus passenger, Shapeley, realizes who Ellie is. He tells Peter that he knows what is going on, and Peter has to figure out a way to quickly keep Shapeley quite. Peter tricks Shapeley into thinking that he has kidnapped Ellie and is holding her for ransom. He says he is willing to involve Shapeley, who is now afraid and no longer wants anything to do with the situation. Shapeley insists that he will keep quiet without Peter even asking him to. Ellie does not see this actually happen, but she does see that Shapeley leaves them alone and that Peter handled the situation.
The next is the scene where Peter reserves the room in the auto hotel, and says that he and Ellie are a married couple. He decides to inform Ellie that he does so, and she initially seems upset, but she quickly comes to understand that in order to keep her identity under the radar, she would benefit from masquerading as Mrs. Warne. The couple who own the auto hotel are suspicious of Ellie and Peter anyway, but it is unclear why. The wife does not seem to like Peter at all, but the husband continues to give them the benefit of the doubt. While it seems as though Capra is showing here that women have an intuition worth listening to, in reality he is showing that women are easier to deceive because Ellie and Peter are not actually fighting when she thinks that Peter leaves Ellie. He goes to get money in order to have her marriage annulled and ask her to be with him. The wife ruins everything because she goes into their hotel and reinforces the idea to Ellie that Peter has left her alone, so she calls her father and throws away all of the hard work they have gone through to get as far as they are. Deception got them the hotel, and when Ellie tells the truth and calls her father everything is wasted.
Perhaps the most iconic scene with explicit deception occurs when Ellie’s father’s detectives knock on their door while Ellie and Peter are getting ready in the morning. Peter ruffles up Ellie’s hair, and unbuttons her shirt a little bit, then he unbuttons his own shirt a little bit, and Peter starts to yell about fictitious family members. The detectives enter the house, and Ellie brushes them off, directing them towards Peter. He defends her and tells them to leave his wife alone. Then the two start to bicker about their notional relationship. Ellie pretends to cry, and the detectives leave. During their escapade, Peter and Ellie work extremely well together and we get a glimpse of the fact that they make a good team. More importantly, we see that deception is what keeps them from being found out and ultimately allows them to make it to the next stage of their journey.
Throughout the movie, the audience knows that Peter just needs a story to send to his boss in order to get his job back, and we see him periodically sending telegrams that reveal Ellie’s location, which he promised her to keep secret. This makes the viewer question whether he is using deception to help Ellie or if he is just a deceptive man in general. We begin to ask at what level the deception ends. In the end we find out that he is not going to give her to her father for the reward, but only wants to be reimbursed for an expense that she caused him. This shows us that Peter evolves, or transitions, from being deceptive in regards to his job at the newspaper, to being deceptive in order to help Ellie and to end up with her. His multilayered deception finally gets him the girl in the end, in a classic twist of fate.
Deception and lying leads to success for Ellie and Peter each time they employ the tactic. Every person they meet believes the stories they create, and when they are suspicious they end up being portrayed as a villainous character. Not only does this exemplify that deception leads to success, but it also represents how people get to create their own lives. Ellie breaks free from her father’s captivity, and she becomes whomever she wants to be. She and Peter build the foundations of a life together, and it is a life that they will create with their own imaginations. Capra tells us that this is ideal by having it so that Ellie’s father prefers Ellie’s relationship with Peter to her former one with Wesley. Wesley represents a lack of change from the life Ellie lived with her father, but Peter contrastingly represents Ellie’s ability to create her own life. We see this creation through their use of deception that brings them closer physically and emotionally, as well as allows them to successfully navigate through life and fall in love.
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