Two very different road trips were taken in the Great Depression. One was comic, one was tragic. They are depicted in the films “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). In each case the road means escape from what is behind and pursuit to a desired destiny ahead, and each occurred on two great and historic thoroughfares in this country. “The Grapes of Wrath” of course featured Route 66 westward from Oklahoma to California. The route taken in “It Happened One Night” from Miami, Florida northward to New York City is not named, but in all likelihood if the trip had been taken, it would been on Route 1.
We Americans have, it is said, an automobile culture. Yet before the massive interstate construction of the Eisenhower administration, the US was a loose mesh of two-lane highways, one going and one coming, which thinned out to dirt roads the farther one got from town. Perhaps because of this, there weren’t too many “road movies” in Hollywood’s heyday. People took the train for adventure or for business.
In his introduction to his book, “US 1 - America’s Original Main Street” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), author Andrew H. Malcolm notes, “Today, most long-distance travelers who choose to stay ground-bound opt for the Interstates, those efficient, high-speed cocoons of concrete copied from Hitler’s autobahns that consume forty-five acres of land in every mile.”
These two movies show an America before the Interstate. The two journeys are as difficult and eventful as Homer’s Odyssey was for him. “It Happened One Night” takes place mostly on a bus. Spoiled rich girl Claudette Colbert runs away from her father on the “Night bus to New York.” Fired smart-aleck reporter Clark Cable shares a seat with her. Ward Bond is the surly driver, who’s first snippy encounter with Mr. Gable draws the oh, so combative remark, “Oh, yeah?”
“Now that’s a brilliant answer, why didn’t I think of that?” Gable rejoins, “Our conversation could have been over long ago.”
“If you keep that up, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
“You got me. Yeah!”
It is a long, uncomfortable ride on narrow, straight-backed seats but the passengers share companionable inconvenience better than we would today. It is world less comfortable and more courteous. It is a world of pencil-thin mustaches and pencil-thin eyebrows.
They get a 15-minute rest stop at remote greasy spoons. They get 30 minutes for breakfast in Jacksonville, Florida the following morning (it has taken them all night to get from Miami to Jacksonville).
Gable and Colbert then catch a different bus on the same route, and the driver calls his passengers together by announcing the cities that lie ahead of them, Savanna, Charleston, Columbia, Greensboro, Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and finally, New York.
On this leg of the journey a smarmy salesman named Shapeley, played with panache by Roscoe Karns, annoys Miss Colbert with the snappy pickup line, “Hi, Sister, all alone?” He is fast talking and comically boorish, “Shapeley’s the name, and that’s the way I like ‘em.”
We see rain on the bus windows, and when a bridge is washed out, they stay the night at an “auto camp” cabin, forerunner of today’s motels. It is $2 a night, and here we have the famous “Walls of Jericho” scene. In the morning, Gable informs Miss Colbert that the showers “and things” are outside.
Back on the bus we have group sing-alongs and a talent show of sorts with individuals taking turns at verses in “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” No need for a DVD shown on a TV mounted on the ceiling of the bus. They make their own entertainment.
We are shaken from the innocent fun, literally, by a slight accident, and a woman has fainted. Her sobbing son, comforted by Gable, confesses they have not eaten and did not guess the trip to New York, where she hopes a job will be waiting for her, would cost so much. Colbert and Gable give him their last couple of dollars. Dreams and desperation are their companions on the bus, and the Great Depression goes along for the ride.
The trip continues for Colbert and Gable as they proceed on foot, hitchhiking with scam artist Alan Hale, who sings wonderful operatic-style nonsense exclamations in his excellent signing voice, “Young people in love are VERY SELDOM HUNGRY!” (Mr. Hale once hoped to be an opera singer.) Gable ends up stealing his car. Eventually they get to New York City, separately, and choices have to be made. Though they have fallen in love with each other by the end of the trip, it is essentially a “buddy” movie, one of the few with a man and a woman. Another that comes to mind is “Sullivan’s Travels,” but that’s a journey for another time.
Tomorrow, more on A Tale of Two Road Trips.