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The Rom-Com Tropes Popularised by It Happened One Night

08 Feb 2024 | 4 MINS READ
The Rom-Com Tropes Popularised by It Happened One Night
Yasmin Omar

As Frank Capra’s beloved Pre-Code classic turns 90, Yasmin Omar considers the romantic-comedy story beats it played a part in canonising.

Before Mr Smith went to Washington, before angel Clarence got his wings, director Frank Capra made the quintessential rom-com: It Happened One Night, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this month. The film – the first to sweep the ‘Big Five’ Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) – stars Claudette Colbert as Ellie Andrews, an entitled banker’s daughter who escapes her disapproving father and sets out on a cross-country trip to reunite with the milquetoast man she secretly married. 

But who should she meet on the Miami to New York bus she ends up on? Clark Gable’s irritable newspaperman Peter Warne who, sensing the scoop of a lifetime with the runaway heiress, agrees to help reunite her with her husband for exclusive rights to the story. Peter and Ellie spat, they squabble, they fall in love. If the plot points sound familiar, that’s because It Happened One Night drew up the blueprints upon which countless latter-day romantic comedies are based. We can’t claim that the film invented these rom-com ideas exactly – a lot of them find their origins in Shakespeare – but it certainly brought them to the burgeoning art form that was cinema in the 1930s. Here, we run down the tropes popularised by It Happened One Night, and some of the modern romantic comedies they appear in.    

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The Enemies-to-Lovers Pipeline 

Peter and Ellie do not get off on the right foot. During their prickly meet-cute, she takes the bus seat he tossed newspapers out of a window to secure; she tattles to the driver, remaining in the seat; he scooches into the cramped space beside her. From there, it’s an awful lot of name calling – ‘ungrateful brat’, ‘dizzy dame’, ‘smart alec’ – and one-upmanship, with frank discussion of how they’re not romantically interested in each other in the slightest. Then, ever so slowly, their burning hatred cools into mutual appreciation, with veiled compliments and prolonged, meaningful eye contact, and softens into love.      

The enemies-to-lovers narrative is the bedrock of countless rom-coms because it ensures strong emotions propel the story from beginning to end (hate and love being comparably, though inversely, fiery). This trope arguably reached its apotheosis with Rob Reiner’s Eighties classic When Harry Met Sally (1989), when a stubborn, teeth-picking Harry (Billy Crystal) declares to Meg Ryan’s uptight reporter Sally that men and women can’t be friends, proving his (rather misogynistic) theory correct with their eventual happy-ever-after.

A few years later, Jack Nicholson became the poster boy for this idea. In As Good as It Gets (1997), he portrays a misanthropic romance novelist who rubs Helen Hunt’s local waitress – and everyone else, for that matter – up the wrong way, leading to sparky, screwball-esque back-and-forths. At one point, she travels from Brooklyn to Manhattan in a rainstorm to tell him she’ll never, ever have sex with him, only for the word ‘sexy’ to die in her mouth when appraising him a few scenes later. The same storytelling engine powers Something’s Gotta Give (2003), in which Nicholson’s sleazy playboy is dating Diane Keaton’s age-inappropriate daughter (!), but eventually comes to realise it’s the older woman, who chides him for his dalliances, he actually loves.    

To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

The Fake Relationship 

In 1934, it would have been dreadfully unseemly to show a single man and a single woman booking into a motel room together for the night (and, mere months later, would’ve been banned under the Hays Code that prohibited, among many, many other things, suggestions of premarital sexuality). So, in It Happened One Night, Peter registers Ellie as his wife at check-in – which has the subsidiary benefit of keeping the runaway’s true identity off the record. The pair have to pretend to be a couple when the authorities come knocking in the morning, and they easily shrug off their charged bickering and slip on the weary resentment of an unhappy marriage. ‘Quit bawling! Quit bawling!’ Peter screeches, while Ellie screams and feigns convulsing sobs. The police leave, she bursts out laughing and Peter, impressed at how she threw herself into the ruse, compliments her acting while buttoning up her open blouse. 

Since then, the fake-relationship ploy has become a whole subgenre of rom-com. Noah Centineo, for one, has essentially made a cottage industry of playing pretend boyfriends for Netflix. He woah-woah-woahed his way through To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) as the jock ‘dating’ Lana Condor’s dweeby introvert to make his ex jealous; and a year later, in The Perfect Date, he was, variously, a salsa dancer, an art-history scholar and a prep, turning on the charm as he ‘went out’ with a slew of girls.

Sometimes weddings are involved in such movies. In The Proposal (2009), Sandra Bullock’s demanding New York publisher blackmails her assistant (Ryan Reynolds) into marrying her to save her from deportation back to Canada, resulting in them spending the weekend lying to his family about their relationship status. And the recent sleeper hit Anyone But You (2023) found Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney’s reluctant couple outwardly professing love, while inwardly harbouring hatred, at an otherwise idyllic destination wedding. Suffice it to say, fake dating is something that reappears time and time again in rom-coms. To paraphrase Audre Lorde: there are no new ideas, only new ways of making them felt.  

27 Dresses (2008)

27 Dresses (2008)

The Scoop-Searching Journalist

We meet Peter Warne as a journalist – in a payphone barking out insults to, and subsequently being fired by, his editor – long before he is revealed as a love interest. Later, upon realising that the woman sitting next to him on the bus is the missing heiress the papers are dedicating front pages to, he keeps her close so he can deliver her home, and secure the breaking-news story he needs to get his job back, in one fell swoop. Nowadays, there are innumerable journalist rom-com heroines: Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed (1999), Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 (2004), Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up (2007), Rachel McAdams in Morning Glory (2010)... These characters often work on culture- or lifestyle-adjacent stories, which keeps the extrapersonal stakes of their jobs suitably low. 

Unlike It Happened One Night, wherein Peter tells Ellie he plans to sell her story early on, plenty of contemporary rom-coms feature reporters who deliberately conceal that they’re using their future partner for a scoop, resulting in a short-lived betrayal before a kiss-and-make-up reconciliation. Take 27 Dresses (2008). James Marsden’s wedding reporter Kevin wants to ‘level up’ to harder hitting journalism, and pitches a column about perennial bridesmaid Jane (Heigl again! She really got around in the Noughties). When the story is printed, Jane, who now has feelings for Kevin, is crushed, and he, also smitten with her, regrets his decision. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) uses this premise too, with Kate Hudson’s women’s magazine writer plotting a pivot into war reporting (!?) by filing one last fluffy article. To drum up material for a dating feature, she behaves increasingly outrageously to spook Matthew McConnaughey’s hardened playboy into ditching her. (Down With Love [2003], the frothy Doris Day-Rock Hudson rom-com pastiche, relies on this same amorous double-crossing.) 

It’s not always manipulative, though. For a more pure-hearted take on the trend, look no further than Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). Ever charmingly hapless, Bridget (Renée Zellweger) loses an opportunity to conduct an interview with recently liberated freedom fighter Kafir because she was buying cigarettes (classic). Mark (Colin Firth) – the lawyer representing Kafir and the man who’s trying to win Bridget’s heart – gives her an exclusive with his client. It’s a sweet gesture that hints at Mark’s affection for her, just as she is.

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004)

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004)

The Teaching of a New Skill 

It Happened One Night’s Peter considers himself a worldly renaissance man. Any time he shows a modicum of prowess doing something, he quips to Ellie that he’ll write an educational book on the subject one day. There are several such moments in the film. He coaches the sheltered Ellie on how men get undressed (oo-err!), dunk doughnuts in coffee, piggyback and hitchhike (more on that to come), though admittedly with mixed results. Men in rom-coms love to teach their soon-to-be beloveds new skills because a) it allows them to parade their knowledge around and b) it provides opportunities for serious flirtatious horseplay. 

For instance, in The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004), Chris Pine’s lovestruck aristocrat gives Anne Hathaway’s clumsy royal an archery lesson. It’s useful for her upcoming coronation, sure, but it’s more useful for him to pull her close, place his hand on her shoulder and whisper ‘touch your mouth’ in her ear. Then, of course, there’s Jack Black’s goofy composer gallivanting around Blockbuster giving Kate Winslet’s heartbroken journalist (!) an intro to film-score history in The Holiday (2006). And The Game-esque pick-up artist (Gerard Butler) of The Ugly Truth (2009), who gets a highly strung journalist (!), played by Katherine Heigl (!), to wear an earpiece so he can explain, beat by beat, how she should behave on dates to encourage an eligible doctor to fall in love with her. 

Knowledge-sharing isn’t always one-sided in the rom-com. On the contrary, sometimes it’s framed as more of a cultural exchange, where each party fills in the other’s gaps. Two of the genre’s high-school entrants, She’s the Man (2006) and The DUFF (2015), both do this, with one character in each film doling out dating advice by claiming to know what (wo)men want, while the other offers more scholarly tuition. And an honourable mention must go to Titanic (1997). Not a comedy, I know, I know, but Peter’s ‘Where’d you learn to dunk [doughnuts], in finishing school?’ in It Happened One Night dovetails so perfectly with Jack’s joking to Rose about her spitting technique – ‘What they didn’t teach you that in finishing school?’ – that it simply had to be cited.  

There's Something About Mary (1998)

There's Something About Mary (1998)

The Risqué Scene 

It Happened One Night has more than its fair share of memorable sequences, but without question its most enduring is the hitchhiking scene. Peter and Ellie, penniless since she gave a hungry child their last few dollars (that’s the Great Depression, folks!), are ejected from the bus and forced to hitchhike. Peter explains, in painstaking detail, how gifted he is at getting cars to stop for him – ‘Just watch that thumb, baby’ – only for all of the oncoming vehicles to speed straight past him. Ellie, ignoring his derision, has a go, and lifts up her skirt to show her stockinged thigh, which prompts the next car to screech to a halt. ‘Why didn’t you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped 40 cars,’ Peter spits, venomously. It's funny and mildly salacious, a combination that would go on to inspire all manner of rom-coms.  

As social attitudes evolved over the decades, filmmakers were able to mine laughs by showing more of the body. A key comic set-piece in The Proposal showcases a nude, freshly showered Sandra Bullock – an arm over her chest and an exfoliating mitt over her crotch – hairdrying the dog that’s blocking the door between her and a towel. What’s Your Number? (2011), similarly, stages a game of ‘Strip Horse’ (i.e. shooting hoops and removing an item of clothing for each missed shot) between Anna Faris and Chris Evans in an after-hours Madison Square Garden. There are even more sexually daring examples of this: the There’s Something About Mary (1998) ejaculate-as-hair gel and the vibrating knickers activated during a client dinner in The Ugly Truth come to mind. These comic titillations may feel cliché now, but when Colbert flashed her legs in 1934 it was pretty daring.  

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

The Musical Moment 

The musical and the rom-com are related, since they both build to climaxes where uncontainable feelings spill out. In musicals, these moments are, naturally, songs; in rom-coms, they’re usually confessional speeches where characters enumerate the reasons they love someone (the When Harry Met Sally monologue is a God-Tier example). Therefore, it makes sense that romantic comedies borrow from musicals to achieve similar heart-swelling emotion. A key sequence in It Happened One Night has all the passengers on the Greyhound enjoying a group singalong of the 19th-century ditty ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’ as they rumble down the motorway. Jovial though it may be, the scene marks an important turning point for Ellie: it loosens her up and places her within the working-class community whose customs she was previously oblivious to. 

That’s what musical moments in rom-coms do: they reveal character. In Love Actually (2003), Hugh Grant’s prime minister shaking his stuff to ‘Jump (For My Love)’ alone in his Downing Street quarters demonstrates the playful side he has to tamp down in public. Out on the crowded football field in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), a soppily sincere rendition of ‘I Love You Baby’ reveals the soft side of its alt cool-guy performer (Heath Ledger) to a sheepishly smiling Julia Stiles. And, on the other end of the sentimental spectrum, the plaintive wailing of ‘Bleeding Love’ in No Strings Attached (2011) – by an icing-smeared, mascara-dripping Natalie Portman – is a time-efficient way to show how devastated she is at the thought of having lost her love (Ashton Kutcher).    

Pretty Woman (1990)

Pretty Woman (1990)

The Class or Status Divide 

Ellie and Peter come from different worlds. She’s a moneyed heiress who throws a steak dinner out of a window in a fit of petulance; he’s a striving careerist who eats field-salvaged raw carrots when the going gets tough. Much of the conflict in It Happened One Night arises from this tension between their opposing classes, and their different understandings of the value of money and how to treat people. ‘The only way you get anything is to buy it, isn’t it?’ Peter observes. ‘You’re as helpless as a baby.’ In fact, what seals the deal for them getting together [spoiler] is that Peter only asks Ellie’s rich father for $39.60 of road trip-incurred expenses for returning her safely home, and not the $10,000 reward offered. 

A number of modern rom-coms, naturally, star Oxbridge-educated Hugh Grant as a charismatic, if out-of-touch, upper-class man who hasn’t the foggiest idea how the other half live. In Two Weeks Notice (2002), he’s a billionaire land baron whose idea of poverty is having to share a helicopter with another family, who falls for his bourgeois, social justice-advocating assistant (Sandra Bullock). Workplace power imbalance is also a central pillar of Grant’s Love Actually storyline, since his Prime Minister gets involved with his working-class assistant (Martine McCutcheon), who lives on ‘the dodgy end’ of Wandsworth. 

Notting Hill (1999), however, flips the script with Grant’s casting. Yes, he’s a west-London posh boy, but his love interest (Julia Roberts) is a movie star, which stacks the status decks in her favour. Roberts is no stranger to such on-screen class divides either, given her impoverished sex worker in Pretty Woman (1990) – who felt-tips over the scuffs on her boots – is socially outclassed by Richard Gere’s Four Seasons-residing hedge-fund manager. Romantic comedies erect these social barriers to play into the opposites-attract idea, and create obstacles for characters to overcome. As Jude Law says to Cameron Diaz in The Holiday: ‘I’m a book editor from London, you’re a beautiful trailer-maker from LA… we’re worlds apart.’ 

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Yasmin Omar

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