The Transgression of the Limits of Knowledge in “It Happened One Night”

In Pursuits of Happiness, Steven Cavell claims that the genre of the Comedies of Remarriage is in fact ‘investigations of (parts of a conversation about) ideas of conversation, and investigations of what it is to have an interest in your own experience’ (Cavell, 7). About these conversations, Cavell says that these are ways in which to reconcile our own limitations to knowledge. As humans, we are constantly in pursuit of transgressing our limits of knowledge. The ways in which we are able to do that in any way is through the use of language. And the only way in which we can articulate our experience is through and with others. We know that we are incapable of objective knowledge of our own minds and even more so the minds of others. The way in which we mitigate the desire to transgress that barrier is through conversations. What we are constantly at odds with are our fears of being isolated versus our fears of becoming absorbed by other minds, or society. Cavell discusses the ways in which It Happened One Night serves as a metaphor for which the principle pair come to know their own desires and become educated about those desires. It is through this acknowledgement of limitations that we actually become more aware of our knowledge and thus, our identity.

Cavell goes on to describe this problem of identity played out in Comedies of Remarriage as “conducted through the concept of difference” (Cavell, 55). In the film It Happened One Night in particular, the barrier to the realm of knowledge of self and of others is symbolized by the blanket or ‘The Walls of Jericho’ that divide Peter and Ellie. It acts as an obstacle to the reconciliation of the realm of private knowledge and the realm of public knowledge. It is my aim in this paper to discuss the importance of reflexivity of film to making these reconciliations. If like Cavell claims, conversation is critical to relationships with others, and criticism is an extension of conversation, then what can be said about the conversation of this film and film in general after the advent of sound?

In examining Frank Capra’s 1934 film, It Happened One Night, I would like to begin by establishing a claim that I share with Cavell, that of Peter as a surrogate for the director. Take for instance the scene when Peter leaves Ellie to obtain the money from his editor in exchange for the story of the century. His story is objectified as truth but it is of events that have not yet happened. It is as if his publishing his knowledge through this medium of the masses is an act not of commenting on events but of propelling them to action. Still, it is an action that Peter himself has been aware of all along because we know that Ellie is only another story to tell by Peter’s earlier claim, “Let’s get this straightened out right now. If you’re nursing any silly notion that I’m interested in you, forget it. You’re just a headline to me.” What isn’t clear is what that headline will be. What new knowledge will Peter, in fact, fancy having? The only clear explanation is that Peter knows all along that the story he will write is his own. His declaration that he is not interested in Ellie is part of his struggle between the knowledge of himself in isolation and of being absorbed by other minds.

In thinking about the role of Peter as both the director and the reporter (both creators of social knowledge) consider the line, “I never did like the idea of sitting on newspapers. I did it once, and all the headlines came off on my white pants. On the level! It actually happened. Nobody bought a paper that day. They just followed me around over town and read the news on the seat of my pants.” In this way, he declares his need to transgress the boundaries of that knowledge. It is after he is overcome by his love for Ellie, a desire that manifests as he peeks over the ‘Walls of Jericho’, that he goes to his editor in order to put this story into motion. It is as if we are made aware of the purpose of the entire film in this one instant of revelation that this story is about Peter’s desire to acquire the end result of happiness in his social marriage to Ellie, in contrast to the couple that they pretended to be while alluding other would be intruders of his story.

If we surmise that Peter is thus telling his story through his understanding of himself and what he desires, then Ellie’s role is that of the other that he wishes to reconcile with his concept of his own identity. What does it mean for instance to have ‘captured’ Ellie, of keeping her to himself away from not only her father, but other people who wish to also tell her story? What Cavell will say that Wittgenstein, Kant and even Freud establish is that the emotions such as love cannot be something that one can choose, just like one cannot choose to have natural knowledge of the world. What happens to Peter as he tells of his knowledge before it has become truth is that he is attempting to reconcile his “perception and his imagination”. The ‘Walls of Jericho’ is a symbol that works to represent the problem of other minds, in particular, Ellie. He keeps Ellie as both a reassurance and a threat to his ideal until he is able to acknowledge that he has a story to tell. And his story is non-linear in function, he as the director already knows the events before he constructs his blanket/movie screen. And it is his time with Ellie that serves as a function of his desire to create such a story retold to an audience who experience like newspaper readers who read the news after it has happened.

As Ellie throughout the film goes from refusing food at the beginning of the film to eating the food found in nature (the raw carrots), it is as if Peter becomes aware of Ellie as a real person. Cavell explains this acceptance of hunger as Ellie’s acceptance of her humanity, as “of true need – call it the creation of herself as a human being” (Cavell, 93). But as it is Peter’s story to tell, it is his acknowledgement of her as a human, not merely because of her mutual for knowledge, but a human who needs him to alleviate that hunger, that serve as events in the story that happen to Peter in spite of himself. Before Ellie resorts to eating the raw food that breaks a barrier between them we had even seen Peter attempt to feed her hunger when he cooked breakfast for her in the cottage, yet he did so in another role—that of mother and father. The scene of their breakfast together is juxtaposed with the scene of the detectives looking for Ellie in which the pair acts out personalities of what they imagine married couples to be like. It is evident in their bantering that they know what marriage consists of, a bickering with a male domination. But because of their caricature reenactments of such a married couple, it becomes clear that they both wish to redefine what it means to be married into a conception that provides an equal footing as expressed in their successful union of theatrics.

The fact that the couple remains at a seemingly endless disagreement until Ellie’s transgression of the ‘Walls of Jericho’ presents Ellie as the star or actor in Peter’s film. She is the agent by which he will be able to tell his story. Earlier in the film recall that it is Peter who presents the barrier of the ‘Wall’ that separates them, as well as directs her to play her role of daughter of a plumber during their fake marriage.

A further revelation that the love of Ellie as the subject for his story is an obstacle for Peter in his attempt to situate himself to the world is evident as he is estranged from his employment at the newspaper (from the dissemination of knowledge) and in his frustration in his acknowledgement of his love for Ellie (in his knowledge through her). When he goes to Elli’s home on her wedding day to collect the money that she has put him out, it’s almost in an attempt to see for himself that his story has been messed up as described by his editor (“That’s the way things go: you think you got a great yarn, and something comes along and messes up the finish – and there you are.”).

What he encounters is Elli’s father as an agent in continuing his story, acting as an agent instead of a senex character to thwart his happiness and instead as an agent in developing his happiness resulting in a happy reunion of the couple. When her father asks him if he loves her, Peter laments, “A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!” What exactly does he mean by his ‘idea of nothing’? It seems that he is at the same time frustrated at this ineffable thing that has happened to him while aware of his inability to know other minds truly, thus to him, they remain nothing of which he can describe. Although Peter remains unable to transgress the barrier, he is able to tell his story through the director, the blanket or the screen both an obstacle and a means to allusion. Or in a larger sense, the director tells the story through the character of Peter as way of communicating the problem of identity through the social realm of film. This ability to communicate in and of itself is a way to construct and define knowledge as well as a way to transgress the barriers of our limits to knowledge. We as spectators are as much a part of this ‘tumbling down’ of barriers as is Peter, Ellie or the director himself.


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