Film Appreciation: “History is Made at Night” — Transcendent Love on Screen
By Betsy Sherman
Director Frank Borzage’s wonderful 1937 History Is Made at Night, newly restored and released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection, defies pigeonholing.
History Is Made at Night – Directed by Frank Borzage. Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection; showing on The Criterion Channel.
“I love to direct,” said Frank Borzage in a 1934 interview. “I love to get into the hearts and souls of my players and make them live the characters which they portray.”
By that time, the consummate director of actors had been making pictures for almost 20 years. He had developed a unique ability to portray transcendent love on screen. What was the secret of this Borzage touch?
Martin Scorsese, a fan, has written, “Borzage was so tuned into the nuances between people that he was able to catch emotions that you just don’t see in anyone else’s movies.”
And Gary Cooper, who starred for Borzage in the sublime A Farewell to Arms and in Desire, said, “… his personality seems to radiate a tenderness that makes itself felt in the players and lends conviction to the scene.”
On the mere technical plane, it may have been something in the way he photographed faces, especially the lighting of the eyes. He could evoke spirituality, even in what seemed like a mundane tale. Borzage, a plain-spoken Westerner, simply said he wanted to make “stories with a lift.”
Borzage’s wonderful 1937 History Is Made at Night, newly restored and released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection, defies pigeonholing. Much of it resembles a screwball comedy, but it starts off on a dark note and heads for darker territory. It has the pull of a romantic melodrama, but can be exhilaratingly frothy. The director and a topnotch cast headed by Jean Arthur, Charles Boyer, and Colin Clive, finesse these shifts, and in this effort are supported by master craftspeople of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The beautiful black-and-white digital transfer is packaged with extras that celebrate master storyteller Borzage (pronounced bor-ZAY-gee with a hard g). The filmmaker, who was born in Salt Lake City in1894 and died at age 68 in 1962, won a directing Oscar at the very first Academy Awards ceremony for the 1927 7th Heaven (and later won for the 1931 Bad Girl).
There aren’t many in-depth Borzage interviews to be found, even in text form, which is why it’s thrilling that the disc includes excerpts from a 1958 audio interview with him. In it, he discusses his youth as a screen actor in the medium’s early days. He became so frustrated with the formulaic approach (everything was “overdone”) that he decided to become a director to figure out a different, better way to make pictures.
During the silent era, Borzage made an acclaimed series of movies at Fox starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. He made a successful transition to sound cinema during the early ’30s. By mid-decade, he was under contract at Warner Bros. and unhappy with the projects he was being offered. The director jumped at the chance to work for his polo teammate, producer Walter Wanger (who had a deal with United Artists), on the intriguingly titled History Is Made at Night.
The film’s opening moments present a strongly etched portrait of power, and of power thwarted. Millionaire tycoon Bruce Vail (Clive) is on the deck of one of his ships, looking at another of his ships: he’s showing off to members of the English press the luxury ocean liner Princess Irene, soon to make her maiden voyage. A reporter asks where the ship’s namesake, Bruce’s wife Irene (Arthur), is. She has a cold, he vamps. He goes to below to fetch his wife, regardless. What he finds is a note saying his unfounded jealousy has become intolerable; Irene has gone to London to file for divorce — and she doesn’t want any of his money.
The split is front-page news. After initiating the proceedings, Irene relocates to Paris. British law requires that a divorce claimant remain “blameless” for six months, before there can be a final decree. Bruce means to entrap Irene and bind her to the marriage: he pays his chauffeur to break into her Paris hotel room at night and force Irene into a lovers’ clinch, which Bruce and a detective will witness.
However, Paul (Boyer), in a neighboring hotel room, hears a woman’s scream. He enters through the balcony and knocks the chauffeur out with a punch. When Bruce and the detective burst in, Paul pretends he has a gun. He demands that Irene give him her jewels. Then he locks the men in a closet and forces Irene (throwing a mink coat over her negligee) to leave with him.
These sordid circumstances turn into a glorious meet-cute. When they’re in a cab, Paul returns the jewels and explains the ruse: how would she have explained his presence in her room? The befuddled Irene realizes how much she owes the stranger. They arrive at a restaurant that’s about to close, and convince the chef and the band to reopen for just the two of them. They banter, drink champagne and tango the night away — Irene in bare feet, having kicked off her slippers. By morning, their lives have been transformed by their love.
Meanwhile, a scene showing what’s happening back in Irene’s hotel room hits like cold water in the face. Bruce kills the chauffeur with a fireplace poker. He believes the so-called jewel thief is the lover he has already (falsely) accused Irene of having, so aims to frame him for the murder.
Irene, thinking that Paul did accidentally kill the chauffeur, knows that if she continues to see the man she loves, Bruce will find out and have Paul arrested. She agrees to sail to New York with Bruce. In the city, Irene briefly eludes her abusive husband and works as a model, under an assumed name.
Paul, who, it turns out, was head waiter at the restaurant where the couple tangoed, sails to New York to search for Irene. He’s accompanied by his protective friend, the chef Césare (comic actor Leo Carrillo, spouting malapropisms in an Italian accent). In a plot point you might call far-fetched — or audacious –when Paul is unable to find Irene, he decides to take over a New York restaurant, making it so buzzed-about that she’ll check it out. The ploy works, but further complications arise and Bruce puts the lovers’ lives in peril — inevitably — on board the Princess Irene.
In one of Criterion’s extras, author Hervé Dumont (Frank Borzage) speaks admiringly of History Is Made at Night even as he describes the off-screen chaos of constant rewrites and last-minute scene additions. As it is with many good movies, it’s not so much what happens as how it’s executed. And, as in so many of Borzage’s best movies (which include Man’s Castle and Three Comrades), the director and his actors maintain a firm grasp on the characters.
First, take the antagonist, played by Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein in Universal’s first two Frankenstein movies). Bruce Vail isn’t merely pompous or crude; he’s a disturbed man who looks eaten away by his neuroses. Tuxedoes and pinstripe suits hang from the sharp points of his shoulders (in fact, Clive was ill, and died of tuberculosis months after the film was released). He commodifies his wife, not only by way of the ocean liner, but also via large scale paintings of her. Bruce gives an inadvertent foreshadowing of disaster when he says he’s going to Paris on The Hindenburg (the movie was shot in late 1936 and released on March 5, 1937; the airship crashed on May 6, 1937).
Boyer, already a star in France, was under contract to Wanger. He had already romanced Marlene Dietrich in The Garden of Allah and the next year would woo Hedy Lamarr in Algiers. History is Made at Night lifted the actor out of the anguished-lover rut. Here, the value of Boyer’s robust presence isn’t only his sexiness, but his solidity as a mensch. Paul has a sense of honor and a playful sense of humor. Borzage invites audience identification with him from the start, when Paul watches Irene’s struggle with the chauffeur through a pair of French doors that function like a movie screen.
Jean Arthur was a bright light of the screwball comedy genre, although she’s best known now as the woman who wises up the protagonists in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Arthur’s superpower was her moral compass. Even if her character starts out cynical, like in those Capra movies, eventually she’ll chew on her lip, think things over, and do the right thing. With a girlish voice, she was the average American Jane: her Irene was Kansas-bred before she became a model and was charmed by a millionaire. When Bruce taunts Irene, asking what she would give for Paul to be there with her instead of him, Irene says “I’d give my soul!” in a guttural tone that springs from deep within, and may be unmatched in Arthur’s career.
The film’s most extreme example of Borzage telling a story in a different, better way comes in its climax. While the assailed lovers are trying not to think about “tomorrow,” a nearby group of men, mostly elderly, are told some good news. What follows is an ecstatic montage expressing the affirmation of life. The stuff of this montage is not our two attractive stars, but a succession of ordinary men, their faces bursting onto the screen like fireworks. There’s an illustration of rebirth, with an elderly face replaced by a middle-aged face replaced by a young face. Only then do we rejoin our lovers. For these two, for all of them, and maybe for the world, “tomorrow” now has meaning.
The DVD extras are: Hervé Dumont in conversation with Peter Cowie, an essay by Dan Callahan, a featurette on the restoration, and a superb guided tour by Farran Smith Nehme through some of Borzage’s best films. There’s also a radio adaptation of the film for The Screen Guild Theater, starring Boyer and Greer Garson. It was common practice to boil feature films down to 30 minutes for radio. The results were usually woefully inadequate, and this one is no exception — but these adaptations often have something of interest to teach us about their time period. For instance, why does this History Is Made at Night substitute Rio de Janeiro for Paris? Well, it was broadcast on November 10, 1940. Europe was at war and there were no more transatlantic excursions — for pleasure, that is.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.