Years ago in a college course called “History and the Film,” I first saw It Happened One Night (1934), starring Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert. It is a classic film for many reasons and in many ways…not least of which is its taking the five major Oscars—Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Writing. I clearly remember that as a 19-year-old student, I identified with Clarke Gable’s character, Peter Warne, a barely successful newspaper reporter who stumbles onto a sensational story: an heiress-in-hiding who has married a man against her millionaire-father’s wishes. Gable’s performance creates a strong, smart, brash, quick-witted character. Peter Warne has principles and humor and strength…and he has Clarke Gable’s legendary good looks. I was only 19 and dreaming of the life I would live. Peter Warne as portrayed by Gable seemed a good option.
About a year ago on a night when I couldn’t sleep, I watched It Happened One Night again. Again, I loved the movie beginning to end, all its charming characters, all its humor. I laughed all over again at Oscar Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), a fool who tries—and fails—to outwit Warne; and Danker (Alan Hale, Sr.), who turns every thought into a song. But I soon realized that I identified now—more than 40 years later—with the father, Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly). He is steadfast, clearheaded, and dedicated to his daughter’s happiness. In some ways, it was like watching a completely different movie…the banter and charm between Warne and Andrews's daughter, Ellen (Claudette Colbert), was entertaining, but now the scenes between father and daughter had a new power for me…I’m a father. When Andrews visits his daughter on the morning of her wedding, I envied his ability to root out her feelings. “If it’s as serious as all that,…” he commits, “we’ll move heaven and Earth…”
Naturally, the movie hadn’t changed between viewings…I had. In my changing over time, dreams have become realities, been abandoned, or have simply faded away. Fantasies—or things that I had thought were fantastical—have become realities. Even realities—absolute facts on which I’d counted—have been redefined…some for the better and some for the worse. Where my 19-year-old self had envisioned life’s possibilities—dreams and fantasies and the charm of Clarke Gable as Warne, my current self accepts life’s responsibilities—realities built on dreams and the steadfastness of the father, Andrews. While much has changed, much abides: I still love the movie, dream dreams, entertain fantasies, and embrace realities. I still wish I were as handsome as Gable, as quick-witted as Warne, and as steadfast as Andrews.
I will assume, therefore, that in 1802 William Wordsworth was correct when he wrote, “The Child is the Father of the Man.” I have become the natural progression of what I started out to be. “My days [are] bound each to each,” as Wordsworth writes, but life evolves, too…matures. I especially like the scene in the movie when Warne meets with Andrews about both money and Ellen…it’s political, strategic, passionate, comic and tragic. It has a certain “calendar reality” that pits the dreams and fantasies of youth against the responsibilities of adulthood…a most natural opposition.