Classic Scene: Hitchhiking
It Happened One Night (1934)
Directed by Frank Capra
The Scene: After walking down the road proves tiring, runaway heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert) and smooth-talking reporter Peter (Clark Gable) decide to switch tactics and hitchhike. Frank feels the need to mansplain the different techniques of catching a ride on the open roads. Once in practice he fails miserably at getting anyone to stop for them. Once she grows tired of Peter’s failure, Ellie decides to show the big mouthed reporter how it is done, claiming she will stop a car without even having to use her thumb. The young woman struts over to the side of the rode and lifts her skirt to display her magnificent stocking-covered legs and immediately the obnoxious driver Danker (Alan Hale Sr.) comes to a halt to give Ellie and Peter a lift.
The Breakdown: The bedrock of this classic romantic comedy is the chemistry of its stars Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. Strangely enough neither one of them was supposed to be in the film. Gable was given to Colombia by his contracted studio MGM because they did not have any work for him at the time. Colbert had a poor experience working with director Frank Capra previously and had even turned down this part when first offered. In the end Capra ended up with two stars who did not want to be there. Despite this there was definitely a spark between the two which is on full display in this scene in particular. From the tracking shot leading to the spot they rest at the two are constantly hilarious verbal barbs. Colbert in particular is a great one-woman audience mocking Gable’s showboating ways. Being made in the Pre-Code era, It Happened One Night had plenty of leeway in what it was allowed to get away with and the film took full advantage. It is doubtful you would see a gag like this in a film made after 1935. These relaxed censorship rules allow the character of Ellie to prove that she is both sexy and resourceful on the open road while also providing a classic punchline. Given that the increasing sexual tension between Ellie and Peter is a persistent element of this film a scene such as this was almost a necessity.
The Best Bit: As Peter sticks his thumb out trying every trick he knows a parade of cars zips by. I quick succession you see his pride absolutely crumble and Gable’s plays it to hilarious perfection.