Road Warriors: It Happened One Night vs. The Sure Thing

Fifty years apart, two American movies, two sterling examples of the screenwriter’s craft, two young couples who hate each other, forced together on an adventure across the heartland, on their way to separate destinies, finding each other.

It Happened One Night was directed by Frank Capra, who had directed 24 other movies before this one, all of which have been forgotten, but who would go on to become one of the most beloved and iconic of American directors of all time.

The Sure Thing was directed by Rob Reiner, who had starred on a situation comedy and directed one previous feature, the classic This is Spinal Tap.

WHO IS THE GUY? In Night, it’s Clark Gable, cocky, charming newspaper reporter.  In Thing, it’s John Cusack, cocky, witty college student.

WHO IS THE GIRL? In Night, it’s Claudette Colbert, spoiled heiress on the run from her stifling dad.  In Thing, it’s Daphne Zuniga, stiff upper-class college girl with her life all planned out.

WHY ARE THEY FORCED TOGETHER?  Night: Claudette is taking the low road to New York to see her husband, and Clark just lost his job and, for some reason, is on the same bus.  Thing: Daphne is traveling to LA for Christmas break to see her law-student boyfriend, John is traveling to LA to get hooked up with the “sure thing” of the title.

WHAT DOES SHE WANT?  Claudette wants to be free of her father’s yoke, Daphne wants order, calm and certainty — a commitment.

WHAT DOES HE WANT?  Clark wants a story so good that it’ll show those bastards back in New York, John wants sex without responsibility.

MODES OF TRANSPORTATION: Clark and Claudette travel by bus, car, and hitchhiking.  So do John and Daphne, although not in that order.

NOVELTY SONGS?  You bet.  Clark and Claudette bond over a busload of passengers singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” while, conversely, John and Daphne silently pout during a torrent of showtunes belted out by their cute-as-buttons carmates (including a young Tim Robbins).

CRUMMY MOTELS?  Yes and yes.  And arguments over sleeping arrangements, a big deal in 1934, much more ambiguous and amorphous in 1985.

DANGEROUS MEN?  In Night, Claudette is menaced by two guys, “Mr. Shapely,” a snide, chatty salesman, and Alan Hale, a jolly traveler who turns out to be a thief.  In Thing, Daphne is menaced by a guy in a cowboy hat and pickup truck.  In both movies, the guy rescues the girl by pretending to be a dangerous killer, scaring the guy off.  For bonus points, in Night Clark Gable goes so far as to beat up Alan Hale, tie him to a tree and steal his car in order to protect Claudette’s honor (or at least her belongings).

BONDING OVER UNUSUAL FOOD?  Yes and yes.  Claudette has never eaten raw carrots, which Clark swipes from a farmer’s field, while John educates Daphne about cheese-balls, pork rinds and shotgunned cans of beer.

THE ELEMENTS: Clark and Claudette have to spend the night in a hayfield.  John and Daphne temporarily get stuck in a rainstorm.

PRETENSE FOR ACCOMODATIONS?  In Night, they pretend to be married to get a motel room.  In Thing they pretend to be pregnant to get a ride.

T-SHIRT OR NO T-SHIRT?  In Night, Clark Gable took off his shirt, revealing that he had no t-shirt on underneath, and all across the US t-shirt sales plummeted.  In Thing, John Cusack wears a succession of nutty 80s novelty t-shirts to emphasize his quirky individuality.  No report on the effect this had on nutty 80s t-shirts.

COSMIC MOMENT OF BONDING: Clark talks about an island he once visited in the Pacific and how he wants to marry a woman who would run in the surf with him on a night when “you, the stars and the water all become one,” while John talks about a camping trip he went on when he was a kid, where he looked up at the stars and wondered if there was an alien kid on one of those stars, also on a camping trip, looking up and wondering his own self.

A MAN HAS DREAMS: Clark dreams of telling off his editor while John dreams about a young lady in a white bikini.  Plus ca change.

WHAT’S THAT STORY AGAIN?  Both plots hinge to a certain extent on a story that the guy writes.  In Night, Clark is writing the story of how Claudette disobeyed her father and ran away to be with her husband (of whom her father does not approve), but when he falls in love with Claudette his story goes right out the window.  John is failing English and when his “sure thing” plans don’t pan out as expected, the story he writes both saves his grade and brings him his true desire.

WHAT DO THEY GET?  Clark discovers that he doesn’t want that story after all, he wants to marry this dizzy princess.  Claudette discovers that she doesn’t want to disobey her father after all, she wants to marry this cocky, disrespectful bastard.  John discovers that the sex he craves so badly is meaningless without a commitment.  Daphne discovers that commitment is meaningless if there is no life within it.

HOW DID THEY DO?  Night was an enormous hit that made Capra a major director and swept the Oscars in 1934.  Thing was a respectable success that won nothing.

SO WHO WINS?  I have the utmost respect and admiration for It Happened One Night, but my heart belongs to The Sure Thing.

It’s hard to remember now that The Sure Thing was, at the time of its release, marketed as just another raunchy teen comedy of the sort launched by Porky’s in 1982.  The script raises it far above the level of those other movies and the acting is simply extraordinary.  John Cusack, actually looking the 18 he’s playing, gives a lovely, confident, multi-layered performance full of wit, irony and genuine comedic skill.  Years before he played the “Woody Allen character” in Bullets Over Broadway, he can already be seen here channeling the Woodman with his timing, self-effacement and offhand charm.  And Daphne Zuniga is lovely, real and utterly heartbreaking in her part, especially in her Act III scenes with her law-student boyfriend, where we see how far she’s come on her cross-country trip with John.

The climactic scene, where English teacher Viveca Lindfors reads Cusack’s story aloud to the class, is one of the loveliest I’ve ever encountered in a mainstream American film and a peak I have tried many times to match in my career, with little success.


18 Responses to “Road Warriors: It Happened One Night vs. The Sure Thing”
  1. stainedecho says:

    Man, what is it with John Cusack getting rained on and great movies? The Sure Thing, Say Anything…, and High Fidelity. All great movies… all have Mr. Cusack getting soaked in the rain over some woman. 🙂

    • vaklam says:

      It’s the “Cusack Saturation Factor” which is a much better indicator of a film’s quality than some arbitrary star rating.

      • Todd says:

        It’s probably in his contract, a certain number of gallons of water must be expended per every moment of screentime. Perhaps Cusack is part plant.

        • vaklam says:

          That would explain the symbiotic relationship with his sister.

          We work Lili Taylor into this we’ll be on the road to a Grand Unified Theory of Cusack.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I should watch these movies some day.

    I want to see if either can match up to Better Off Dead.

    Two dollars!

    • yetra says:

      Oh, you must! Exposure to pre-code hollywood films can only make one a happier person in general, I’ve found.

      And as for The Sure Thing, you really can’t go wrong with early Cusack. Sure, none of them are as completely amazing as Better Off Dead (which I recently rewatched with friends on xmas eve and now I totally want to be the $2 kid for halloween or perhaps at bman), but they are all delightful and special in their own way.

      I see Better Off Dead, The Sure Thing and One Crazy Summer as the foundation upon which Say Anything was built. And Cusack’s performance as Lloyd Dobler is the reason why nearly all women still love him, even though he hasn’t made a decent film or played an even remotely redeeming or attractive character since 2000’s High Fidelity.

      But for top quality, rarely seen early Cusack, with extra bonus young Tim Robbins, check out Tapeheads. Ah, Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, Production Value, The Swanky Modes, and Everybody Loves Menudo. Pop Culture references I wish everyone knew.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Now that’s a waste of a perfectly good white boy.

        Well, I have seen pre-code films. And I could stand to become a happier person.

        I diasgree that he hasn’t made a good film during that span, I love Grosse Point Blank. And while he had kind of an unpleasant job, he was stilll sympathetic. It’s funny, I’ve only seen bits of One Crazy Summer and seen Say Anything just once. I heard Tapeheads was terrible, but as I’m increasingly learning in my old age, all things (especially taste) are suybjective.

        • yetra says:

          Re: Now that’s a waste of a perfectly good white boy.

          Oh god, you are so right. I’d forgotten about Gross Pointe Blank. Loved that one. But still, that was 1997, and I think I’d said anything after High Fidelity (2000).

          Looking at IMDB, he’s done about 40 films in the 18 years since Say Anything, only 8-10 or so of which were actually good films (25% hit rate). And while he was the romantic lead in many of those, he played characters that quite honestly weren’t all that deserving of getting the girl in the end. I’ve long had a theory that if those roles were filled with any other male actor, the films wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well as they did. But because of his portrayal of Lloyd Dobbler (and Lane, etc…), we just can’t help but root for him.

          I do think the charm is starting to wear off. I know I’ll always love him for the many films he’s done that are among my top films ever, but I’ve given up on expecting anything good to come from him. Hope I get pleasantly surprised.

          As for Tapeheads, it’s definitely a film that you’ll either love or hate. I’m happy to be one that loves it. It’s totally terrible, but in such a wonderful way.

          • greyaenigma says:

            Re: Now that’s a waste of a perfectly good white boy.

            Oops, misread, I thought you meant between those and High Fidelity.

            Hmm, he’s done a lot of movies that I hadn’t realized (or remembered) that he was in.

        • dougo says:

          Re: Now that’s a waste of a perfectly good white boy.

          Tapeheads is awesome. Nearly as good as Better Off Dead.

  3. moroccomole says:

    Thank you! The Sure Thing so rarely gets the respect it deserves, and I doubt if I’ve seen anyone explain its charms as eloquently as you have.

  4. popebuck1 says:

    “Make love… in a HAMMOCK!”

    • Todd says:

      Okay, so Professor Lindfor’s idea of sexual fantasy isn’t so edgy. But in these days of sexual harassment, what else could she advise? Christ, today she couldn’t even suggest that they sleep in a hammock.

      • Anonymous says:

        Prof. Lindfor’s exortation

        Yeah, but of course the rest of what she advocates is pretty tame, too. She’s aiming at our very uptight heroine, for whom a hammock really would be an adventure.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The Sure Thing

    I just watched The Sure Thing for the first time, so you’re getting the raw reactions of a virgin:
    (1) It captures perfectly its time and milieu, down to every detail, in a way that I’ve never seen in a movie before. Everything about it, from the dorm rooms to the characters’ ways of thinking, are completely recognizable and true.
    (2) The characters are fully realized, three-dimensional people — a perfect match of dialogue and acting — and they earn their romantic payoff.
    (3) My decades-long love for John Cusack now takes on a new poignance — what I missed in those years before Eight Men Out…
    (4) That was 1985, the year of The Breakfast Club, Back to the Future, St. Elmo’s Fire for godsake! Compare these against comments (1) and (2).

    • Todd says:

      Re: The Sure Thing

      It captures perfectly its time and milieu, down to every detail, in a way that I’ve never seen in a movie before.

      True, and the production design, while not calling attention to itself, deserves recognition. The wall of beer-bottles in the dorm room, the way Cusack tucks his army-surplus pants into his Converse high-tops, everything is exactly right without making a statement about it.

      The characters are fully realized, three-dimensional people — a perfect match of dialogue and acting — and they earn their romantic payoff.

      Absolutely. And it’s a shame that Daphne Zuniga has not received the career she deserves from this performance. When you think of the other actress’s from the same time, her work in this seems especially deep and well-observed.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: The Sure Thing

        Also, I really liked the consistency of the tone and the fact that the filmmakers meet these characters on their own terms — there’s nothing condescending or smirking about this movie, unlike the other teen/young adult movies of the time, yet the humor never gets lost.

        • Todd says:

          Re: The Sure Thing

          That’s why it was interesting to watch it next to It Happened One Night — to see if it held up in the same way, despite being from a similarly bygone era. It succeeded no problem, which is probably more than I could say for, say, She’s Out of Control. Or She’s All That, for that matter.