I’m writing a series at The Hairpin, about romantic comedies. The first installment is about Notting Hill:
Notting Hill is what some scholars of the genre call a “special relationship” rom com: a British man and American woman overcome their minor cultural differences—represented here by his charmingly diffident awkwardness and her brash mouthiness – and make it work. Four Weddings and Funeral and Wimbledon, all made by the same production company that made Notting Hill, are also special relationship rom coms. Notting Hill also signals the start of a wave of rom coms that are aware of or about the film industry—Anna is an actress who makes rom coms herself, and of course the movie is all about the challenges of being or being with a highly visible actress—and it paves the way for rom coms that are even more self-referential, like Friends With Benefits.
And the second is about It Happened One Night:
Throughout the movie, the central tension between Peter and Ellie is that she’s rich and he’s broke. She’s a spoiled brat, and he’s a man of the people. On the road, with no sense of how to budget her money or fend for herself financially, she needs Peter to survive. He, of course, needs her in order to keep his job. This tension makes a lot more sense when you consider the larger context in which the movie was made and released. It’s 1934, it’s the middle of the Great Depression, everything is shit, everyone has a hangover thanks to Prohibition and its recent repeal, most Americans are miserable. Little wonder, then, that Peter gives Ellie so many resounding verbal beatings, and takes her to task so often for being spoiled and out of touch with real people. Little wonder that he takes so much satisfaction in seeing her brought financially low on the road and relishes the fact that he knows how to live on a tight budget, while she doesn’t.
Peter is meant to be a stand-in for the 99%, Ellie for the 1% who screwed the country over and were still barely dented by the Depression. Along the road, they meet people who are even worse off as a result of America’s economic woes, like the young boy who is riding a bus with his parents all way up the East Coast because his father was promised a job in New York City; the family’s spent all their money on bus tickets, and his mother passes out from hunger. A lot of screwball movies from this time period ignore the Great Depression and continue to tell stories about rich people who are untouched by the poverty and panic around them, but It Happened One Night doesn’t do that. It is explicitly a story about class, and about a roguish but decent working-class man who humanizes, and falls in love with, a pampered rich woman. In fact, if you recognize the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night, in which Ellie’s leg pulls over more cars than Peter’s thumb, it might be because it was featured in Sex and the City 2, in which Carrie and the girls go to Abu Dhabi to be mortifyingly ignorant about Arabic culture: cultural embarrassadors, if you will. Sex and the City 2, released in 2010 when the economy was once again in the shitter, and concerned mainly with the sex lives of four obscenely wealthy women, is an example of how not to make a movie during economic hard times. It Happened One Night was, at least, much less tone-deaf.
Next up: Hitch!