Our thanks to Evan Leighton-Davis — one of the UK’s leading script analysts and owner of London-based script consultancy Industrial Scripts,whom STC! sponsors — for his Beat Sheet on the 1934 screen classic, winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Best Writing, Adaption by Robert Riskin; and Best Director, Frank Capra:
Opening Image (p. 1): Opening image: a nice boat, moored in the ocean somewhere. As the sun pumps down on this idyllic setting, we’re pretty confident that It Happened One Night isn’t going to be a bleak drama, and in this sense the Opening Image succeeds in setting the tone of the story. Also feels vaguely “Snyderian” in that the Opening and Final Images are opposites on at least one level — one occurs in the daytime, another occurs at night. Overall though, this isn’t an Opening Image that reeks of Blake’s theories, although having said that it does provide a claustrophobic “before” snapshot of the world Ellie (Claudette Colbert) inhabits before her big dive to freedom.
Theme Stated (p. 5): No clear Theme Stated moment here, although some would argue that Ellie’s line about her father having been so domineering throughout her life tells us where the main source of tension is going to stem from — the pressure to conform. It’s also clear from Ellie and Warne’s (Clark Gable’s) respective backgrounds (she, a multi-million dollar heiress; he, a drunken, unemployed news reporter) that the story is going to explore the age-old discussion between material prosperity and true happiness. Overall though, there isn’t one, clear Theme Stated moment in the film’s opening 5 minutes.
Set-Up (p. 1 – 10): This section of the film, according to Blake, “sets up the hero, the stakes, and goal of the story.” In It Happened One Night, we meet the hero, Ellie Andrews. We’re also informed (albeit through exposition) that Ellie has got married to a man her powerful father really disapproves of, King Westley. We also get the feeling that Ellie’s father has been a claustrophobic influence on her life: “You’ve been telling me what not to do my whole life”, she tells him. The introduction of the hunger strike is an interesting element — it tells us that for all the witty asides, Ellie is deadly serious about this, and wants off the boat urgently. The stakes are also raised when her father slaps her, which is the final straw as soon afterwards she dives off the boat and swims to freedom. Overall this is a highly effective — and Snyderian — opening 3 minutes or so, although some might argue that it could be made clearer that her father has taken her away from King Westley and has more or less taken her captive. The sequence continues, introducing us to Peter Warne, who we see being fired (and conning his friends that he’s doing the firing). This, coupled with the scene soon afterwards when Warne throws the newspapers out of the window, sets Warne up as almost completely cavalier. The film also takes the relatively old-fashioned road of throwing the two leads together early (8 minutes in) — modern rom-coms often seem to keep them apart for as long as possible (i.e., Sleepless in Seattle). Overall then, the Set-Up sequence here adheres to many of Blake’s criteria for the section, and is probably most impressive in terms of how it establishes character. We get a really strong sense of who both Ellie and Warne are by the end of it.
Catalyst (p. 12): A slightly earlier Catalyst moment than usual here, as Ellie’s bag is stolen. It’s not a very Snyderian Catalyst moment, on reflection, and doesn’t feel “big” enough to really qualify for his definition of the beat. Story-wise, it’s only really significant in the sense that because Ellie doesn’t want to report her bag stolen, it alerts the beady-eyed Warne to the fact that she’s obviously got something to hide. Overall though, the story does suffer for a lack of a really clear, strong Catalyst moment.
Debate (p. 12 – 25): There is some semblance of Debate in the brief moment when Ellie leaves the bus and tells the driver to wait for her. Warne sits there, knowing that the driver won’t wait, and we do get the idea that he is mulling over what to do in this brief moment. The problem is, the debate itself is over very quickly, as Warne makes the decision to stay. The Debate certainly doesn’t last over 10 minutes, as Blake suggests. Does the section “ask a question of some kind,” as Snyder argues it should? Will Warne — once he’s revealed that he knows who Ellie is — give her away and make some money out of it? It looks like he will, when he sends a telegram to Joe Gordon, but from his rather righteous speech to Ellie about “humility” and being a good person, we’re led to believe he wouldn’t do such a thing. The question then becomes one of character: Is Warne pulling the wool over our eyes or Ellie’s? Is he really a stand-up guy or a money-hungry opportunist? Overall then, a more Snyderian Debate section than some.
Break into Two (p. 25): 22 minutes in and the nightbus Ellie and Warne are travelling on breaks down, which forces them to spend the night in the same room together. This moment feels vaguely Snyderian, although in many ways it doesn’t feel “big” enough to qualify, and does rather feel like a moment shoehorned in by the writer to prolong the bus journey. 25 minutes in and Ellie threatens to leave Warne and he in turn warns her that he’ll “tell her old man” if she does. This moment is tenser than the bus breaking down, and also raises the stakes, but overall there isn’t a really clear-cut Break into Two moment and the script is weaker for it.
B Story (p. 30): “The B Story of most screenplays is ‘the love story’, and it’s also the story that carries the theme of the movie,” according to Blake. In the case of It Happened One Night, the love story seems to begin here, as Warne and Ellie are forced to share a bedroom, and then get on well the next morning. However, it’s also possible to argue that the love story has already begun by this point, by simple virtue of the fact that they’ve already met (and she has slept on his shoulder, on the bus). There’s also little mention of theme here, and it isn’t like this represents a cutaway either — we’re still firmly on the main narrative. Not a very Snyderian beat, overall.
Fun and Games (p. 30 – 55): “Two miss-matched individuals on a whacky road trip together” would probably surmise this film’s story, and in this sense, we do see some moments that qualify as Fun and Games. Firstly, Ellie goes to use the women’s showers, and is laughed at when she tries to queue-barge. Then, at breakfast, she talks about how happy she is about being able to do her own thing, having been told what to do her whole life. Warne then teaches her how to dunk a donut, and finally we get some semblance of “Theme Stated,” when Ellie says that she’d “change places with a plumber’s daughter any day.” The pair then enjoy themselves impersonating a trailer trash couple arguing to con the detectives. The “chase” aspect of the script also cranks up during this sequence, as Ellie’s father puts out the reward for her return: “Now we’ll get some action!” he shouts. There’s also a fun sequence on the bus where everyone sings along with the band. Warne then has fun intimidating the sleazy man, and the pair have to leave the bus and cross a river and sleep in a hay barn. Generally speaking, this whole sequence does feel very much like a jaunt, a jolly, the real road trip section of a road trip movie, complete with adventures and mishaps and encounters with whacky characters. It also develops the central romance, and overall feels very in keeping with Blake’s theories
Midpoint (p. 55): There’s a lack of clear-cut Midpoint. The tone darkens somewhat as Warne says some harsh things to Ellie, who’s complaining bitterly about their lack of food. She goes to sleep with a tear in her eye, but we’re really clutching at straws to find a distinct, effective Midpoint in this film.
Bad Guys Close In (p. 55 – 75): Less of a Bad Guys Close In section initially, and more like a continuation of Fun and Games, as Warne and Ellie outwit the conman and steal his car. However, the most significant moment occurs when King Westley and Alexander (the “bad guys”) meet and align their forces in order to persuade Ellie to return. There certainly is an element and feeling of Bad Guys Closing In, as we’re also made aware that the Fun and Games of the road trip is coming to an end, as they’ve almost reached New York. There’s also a very sombre mood when they share a room for the final night, and generally speaking this section does conform to Snyder’s arguments.
All Is Lost (p. 75): Ellie breaks down in tears and tells Warne that she loves him, but he rejects her advances and she ends up crying herself to sleep. True, there’s no sign of Blake’s beloved “whiff of death” moment, but this is quite a depressing scene, which just about scrapes into All Is Lost territory.
Dark Night of the Soul (p. 75 – 85): This is meant to be “the darkness right before the dawn,” but in reality it’s a quite light-hearted sequence which feels better suited to the Finale category, as Warne realises he loves Ellie, comes to his senses, and hares off to New York to get enough money for them to run off together. From Snyder’s point of view, the Dark Night of the Soul and Finale sequences are the wrong way round here, and it’s difficult to disagree.
Break into Three (p. 85): The Break into Three beat actually occurs 98 minutes in, when Ellie ditches King Westley at the altar and drives off to be with Warne. This is a moment which very much conforms to Blake’s definition of what the act break should be, but it occurs very late here.
Finale (p. 85 – 110): As suggested, this section and the Dark Night of the Soul sequence are in the wrong order here, as this is a rather depressing section in which Warne drinks himself silly and Ellie cries on her father’s shoulder about marrying King Westley. It ends happily enough, of course, as Ellie sees the folly of her ways and leaves Westley to be with Warne, but it’s interesting to note that the ending of this film does feel very flawed. One user on IMDb.com even writes “could have been super with a different ending.”
Final Image (p. 110): A rather unsatisfactory Final Image as we’re denied the chance to see the lovers finally together, and instead have to make do with a symbolic moment in which the lights go off in their cabin. [Editor’s note: This reflects the puritanical Hays Code, which the Hollywood studios adhered to at the time.] Still, at the most basic level it’s a happy peak for the protagonist when the beginning of the film represented a real trough, so in this sense the story has swung 180 degrees.
Next week’s blog: Geoff Harris on “The Importance of Character in TV Writing”