Consistency is overrated. Or at least that's what I thought when I finished watching History Is Made at Night, a film that was sold to me as a little-known screwball comedy, released in 1937 as a romance, and ends as a full-blown disaster movie that deliberately evoked the Titanic.
Unprepared for it all, I had genre whiplash as the credits rolled.
The film begins as a drama on its way to a thriller: Irene Vail (Jean Arthur) is desperate for a divorce from her psychopath of a husband (Colin Clive), a wealthy ocean liner magnate. He attempts to prevent her from finalizing her divorce by hiring his chauffeur to pose as her lover, but is foiled by Paul (Charles Boyer), a headwaiter who happens to be putting a drunk friend to bed in the hotel room next door.
So far, so what, but things get more knotted up when Paul pretends to be a jewel thief and kidnaps Irene. In a taxicab fleeing the scene of the crime, he politely hands Irene her jewels back, then offers her refuge for the night at his restaurant, where they fall in love while dancing to the orchestra that was apparently essential to the success of any fine dining establishment before the invention of the iTunes playlist. While all this is happening, Irene's husband kills the chauffeur and frames Paul for the murder, blackmailing her to return to him in exchange for Paul's life.
By this point we're barely a quarter into the film, and things are going to get a lot more improbable. But it's worth it.
None of it would work, however, if there wasn't palpable chemistry between the leads, and Arthur and Boyer have it abundantly. It's not surprising for Boyer – his career in Hollywood was a triumph of typecasting: the insouciant Gallic lover that any woman would fall for if only more Frenchmen were Charles Boyer.
But the surprise is Jean Arthur. They couldn't be more different on the surface – him so essentially French, her the embodiment of Midwestern guilelessness so much that Paul calls her "Miss America" until he finally learns her name. We're used to imagining Arthur playing the knowing modern girl, one very long step ahead of hayseeds in the big city like Gary Cooper and James Stewart in the duo of Frank Capra films (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) where most people get their knowledge of Arthur.
These were the first films I ever saw Arthur in, and they made her my first Hollywood crush, a role reinforced by subsequent discovery of films like The Talk of the Town, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, Only Angels Have Wings and The More The Merrier. Resistant to facile tinseltown glamour, Arthur was the perfect Depression/WWII heroine – resourceful and self-possessed, a real partner, worth the trouble to win over, with a voice that switched between low and husky to nearly adenoidal. It's no surprise it took her so long to really get her movie career going, after making her first appearance onscreen in 1923 – she needed the times to catch up with her.
The "robbery" scene is a testament to Arthur's appeal. Reeling at first from her manhandling by the chauffeur, she has to pivot from Paul's sudden chivalric rescue to his abrupt transformation into cat burglar. Improvising, he barks out orders for her to get her jewels, then her fur coat and she obeys, issuing frantic little shrieks, admitting with charming dismay that she doesn't know what she's doing. It's the moment when you imagine that the film is shifting into screwball gear, and Arthur sells it with a naturalness that makes the best of her roles seem so modern today.
That persona is rich given considering that acting made Arthur a nervous wreck. She was famous as the second most reclusive movie star in Hollywood after Garbo, and Frank Capra recalled her throwing up on set between takes. Edward G. Robinson, her co-star in The Whole Town's Talking (1935), described her with admiration as a "curious, neurotic actress" with "a voice that grated like fresh peppermint."
After she was finally released from her contract with Columbia Pictures in 1944 (famously running through the streets of the backlot yelling "I'm free! I'm free!") she made only two more pictures, the last being in the utterly iconic western Shane in 1953.
But it would be unfair to attribute all of the picture's chemistry to Arthur and Boyer. Director Frank Borzage (pronounced "bor-zay-gee") had made 82 films by the time he started on History Is Made at Night, and would have directed over a hundred when ill health forced him to retire from his last film in 1961, turning over Journey Beneath the Desert to Edgar G. Ulmer.
While nowhere near as critically notable as the wry, ironic "Lubitsch Touch," Borzage was also famous for his own, unique proto-auteur style – a yearning romanticism that enveloped the lovers at the heart of his best pictures so utterly that it became a plot motivation on its own, a force of nature with a nearly spiritual aspect. Scenes in Borzage's films were regularly tinged with fervid, even hallucinatory reveries, unmatched by any other director of the period except perhaps for F.W. Murnau.
History Is Made at Night is relatively grounded for a Borzage film, but the camera becomes woozy and giddy when Paul and Irene are in proximity to each other; their attraction is so elemental that it charges the air around them like a heat haze on a summer day. It's no wonder that the film crosses an ocean twice trailing in the orbit of their emotional and erotic gravity.
Once you know the production history it's obvious why the film is a bit of a mess. Producer Walter Wanger sold Borzage on directing the film based on the title alone. The script was unwritten, only taking shape a few pages at a time, and by the time cameras started rolling it was barely half finished. Key details remained so provisional that the concoction of the shipwreck climax required going back to revisit Irene's husband's occupation.
In isolation, some sequences could be from completely different pictures. When Paul pursues Irene from Paris to New York, the scenes where he takes over a Manhattan restaurant in order to turn it into a destination – a place where everyone would want to go, especially rich men and their wives – begin like screwball comedy then reveal him as a martinet, overseeing his kitchen and dining room with a military efficiency unexpected in a man so transfixed by love. In other scenes with his sidekick chef Cesare (Leo Carrillo) the film takes a dive into ethnic stereotype comedy.
The climax banishes comedy, screwball or otherwise, and goes very dark. In an age where the Titanic tragedy was still a living memory, Borzage evokes the terror of a rapidly sinking ocean liner with pitiless speed. Irene rejects escape, and the two lovers embrace their fate with a solemn resignation that's echoed by the men left behind on the listing ship, dutifully denying themselves a place on the lifeboats and contemplating oblivion.
It would be pointless to rhapsodize about the "Borzage Touch" and Arthur and Boyer's chemistry without talking about Colin Clive's villainous Bruce Vail. Clive is remembered today as Henry Frankenstein, the mad doctor in James Whale's Universal horror classics, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and he brings a bit of that monster movie mania to Bruce's murderous jealousy.
Clive focuses all of the malevolent energy that would pull the lovers apart into his role, seething with menace, his wrath and possessiveness visibly contorting his bones and twisting his hands into claws. Clive was in fact an alcoholic, beset with self-loathing and dying of tuberculosis while filming History Is Made At Night. He died just three months after the picture was released; Peter Lorre was one of his pallbearers.
As with so many old films, it's easy for the uncharitable to find flaws. They'd be glaring in the hands of a lesser director working with an undistinguished cast, but there's a conviction – perhaps even a sense of mission, given Borzage's obsessions – that powers History Is Made at Night along through its shifts in genre and improbabilities.
It's realized when Paul and Irene are finally reunited in New York City. Deceived by her husband's mistaken ruse that the man she loves awaits execution in Paris, Irene is suddenly presented with Paul, alive and well in Manhattan. Overjoyed at how clumsily her husband has overplayed his hand, Arthur's Irene strives to contain herself without giving Paul's identity away, struggling to get through a dinner she anticipated as a final humiliation, knowing that she has hope again.
History Is Made at Night can be found online, drawn from low quality prints and chopped into parts. But thankfully the Criterion Collection recently released a beautifully restored print on DVD and Blu-ray, all the better for the luminous black and white camera work of David Abel, cinematographer on five of the best Astaire/Rogers RKO musicals.
It's true enough that they don't make films like this anymore, but they didn't really make them like this even a few years after Borzage's film was released. Made by a director who did the bulk of his work in the silent era, starring an actress who hated acting, an actor whose best work was in another language and another whose life was ending, it's not surprising that History Is Made at Night plays like the final moments of an era whose fine details are probably obscure and indiscernible today.
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