Frank Capra is well-known for his optimistic perspective of America and its people. In It Happened One Night, he paints a portrait of working class Americans and the rich folks who take their privileged lives for granted. It’s obvious that the tough but sweet newspaper guy and the spoiled but sharp heroine are going to get together, so the fun is in watching them fall for each other.
The scene where Claudette Colbert exposes her bare leg to stop a car is famous, as is the scene where Clark Gable takes off his shirt to reveal a bare chest instead of an undershirt. Both are terrific scenes, but it is another, less famous scene that really builds the relationship between Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert).
The bus Peter and Ellie have been riding on has just crashed. Having no money and trying to hide Ellie’s real identity, Peter leads her into the woods to sleep for the night. She’s unhappy with the prospect of sleeping outside. He’s unhappy with the prospect of having no money. They bicker, but when she complains about being hungry, he leaves her to find food. When she thinks he’s abandoned her, she panics. The scene shows how his natural instinct to take care of her is balanced by her growing dependence on him.
The highlight is when he tucks her in under a blanket. He leans over her, and for a moment that seems to last an eternity, he hesitates. He even bends down a little before fighting the urge and standing up again. For that moment, the sexual tension radiates off the screen. Until that point, the camera has mostly been pulled back to show the woods surrounding them. When he leans over, though, it zooms in on their faces. It’s dark, so the light shines on the pair, making Colbert glow underneath Gable. The scene is, in a word, sexy.