Beyond the classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old films and examines what makes them memorable. In this episode she shows why you fall in love with Frank Borzage’s 1937 novel “History is made at night”.
Romance was one thing Hollywood almost always did well in the studio age. Love had the ability to make even the worst stories interesting and see even the worst actors. For a director like Frank BorzageTo be highlighted as one of the top romantic movie directors in Hollywood was the reputation it had in the 1920s to 1960s. This reputation helped him make a film in 1937 with no specific story or script. History is made at night Confidence in Borzage’s ability to make audiences feel great no matter what the story was lit green, and he definitely manages to do it. His film also brings together two stars in roles they hadn’t stepped into in their careers, making a movie as romantic and legendary as they come. History will be made during the restoration and republication during the night Criteria collection is a great opportunity to see again how classic but unique the movie really is.
When the idea for “History Is Made In The Night” was born, Borzage saw the fruits of his hard work in Hollywood since 1912. He describes his journey from acting to directing in audio clips of interviews with Borzage, which are included in the special features of the Criterion Collection edition of April 2021. He started out as an actor in silent films but decided to put his perspective behind the camera and his talent really increased. By 1932, Borzage received two Oscar prizes for best director and produced a masterpiece adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. He created a romantic tragedy out of Hemingway’s story, not just with writing but also with the camera. Close-ups and interesting framing made the terrible romance even more tangible than other on-screen romances produced at the time. Borzage continued to produce great romantic films such as Man’s Castle and Desire, including films that cemented a reputation in Hollywood.
Eventually, Borzage’s producer friend Walter Wanger came to him with an idea for a film called History is Made at Night. Borzage was so in love with the power of the title that he asked Wanger more about it, but there really was nothing left to share. Wanger had only written about two pages for History is Made at Night, but that was enough for Borzage to know that this was a movie he wanted to make. He developed a team of writers, including himself, to create a story and script for History is Made at Night, but by the time production rolled around, only 54 pages were finished.
Production started with no sure ending or where the film was headed, but they developed an interesting story as it was being made. The climax of the film, which included a shipwreck like the Titanic, was captured thanks to chance. A production next door had a model ship on hand, and filmmakers decided that tragedy at sea was exactly what the film needed. This huge production request was added to the filming process very late. A new beginning of the movie had to be shot for the ending to be worth it, but the result was a beautiful movie that feels like it was planned from the start.
In History is Made at Night, Irene (Jean Arthur) fights for a divorce from her jealous and controlling wealthy husband, Bruce Vail (Colin Clive). He refuses to allow her to escape and will do everything possible to keep her under his thumb, even if she is unhappy and miserable with him. Bruce even pays his chauffeur to act as Irene’s lover, arming her for infidelity and preventing her from winning her divorce case in court. Though he never expected Paul (Charles Boyer), a polite French head waiter, to save Irene from his trap. Paul sees Irene’s exchange with Bruce’s accomplice as he takes his drunk friend to his apartment and walks to Irene’s balcony. He breaks in, beats up the handy chauffeur and pretends to be a thief to prevent the detectives who show up from believing he is Irene’s lover. Then he wipes Irene away and their first night together reluctantly ends at sunrise. The two split up, but they promise to meet again.
Bruce tells Irene that the chauffeur died the night before and they believe the man she went with last night was to blame. The wonderful charmer Paul was a little different from Irene the night before, and in the end she leaves Paris with her husband and tells Paul never to contact her again for his own sake. He does not follow this advice and sets out to find Irene in New York. Finally he does and the two make their way back to Paris alone to clarify Paul’s name as a murderer. Their journey on one of Bruce’s giant ocean liners becomes tragic when they hit an iceberg, and their uncertain future together looks even more impossible.
To tell this love story, Borzage cast two actors who, on the surface, looked like complete opposites to one another. Charles Boyer was the exotic bedroom lover in his Hollywood films like The Garden of Allah and Shanghai. Jean Arthur was in her astute comedy prime with films like Mr. Deed’s Goes to Town and The Ex-Mrs. Braford. Boyer had yet to be a leader, and his sexy love interest roles were far from reaching his full potential. History is Made at Night expressed the innate charm and easy-going coolness of Boyer’s personality and created a person he would use in many of his subsequent films. Arthur’s previous characters were no stranger to love, but usually resisted pursuit with playful laughs. Irene doesn’t let Arthur take on the comedic side. She is in the hands of a deeply angry man, and outside of her love for Paul, her life feels hopeless. There is a real sadness and fear in Irene, but these difficult scenes make the moments of joy she has with Paul even more moving.
Paul gives Boyer a chance to show the general attraction he has on screen. He can’t hide behind an over-the-top character in History is Made at Night like he did on his previous American roles. The Boyer-esque character of Paul worked well for Boyer as many of his roles after that film resemble Paul’s toned-down Casanova personality. The two stars are more vulnerable than ever in their careers as Irene and Paul, which is what makes the love and dramatic scenes so tangible for the audience, especially those familiar with both Arthur and Boyer.
While Borzage involves impressive dialogue, it shows what romance can be in film without the crutch of a good line. The first night they spend together, Irene and Paul spend the whole night slowly dancing in Paul’s restaurant. They barely know each other and when they start getting too deep in conversation, they decide to live in the moment when they are quietly together. Boyer’s view of Arthur is more romantic than any fine line Borzage could have written. The close-up image realizes the power their expressions have in creating the chemistry required for this romance to work in the movie. There is no rhyme or reason for how they feel. They are instantly drawn to each other without any explanation.
In this first scene, they realize the unique connection they have, and films like this make us believe that it is possible. They both tell each other that they want to say things that society thinks too soon to be too soon, but they never say what we realize they are feeling: love. Irene and Paul realize that they don’t have the time to learn the silly details like last names when their nights together always have to end. Why waste time staring each other in the eye and saying a simple “Oh”? Borzage knows that there is no point wasting time telling us what to feel as an audience.
While the story feels surprisingly pieced together and knows the history of the writing process, Borzage knows these dramatic scenes are meant to get us to the moments when Irene and Paul can be together. Romance isn’t the only thing Borzage does well, but it’s certainly the most memorable in his films, thanks to what critic Farran Smith Nahme calls his understanding of the “supremacy of love” in her interview in the specifics of the Criterion Edition. There may be tragedy and deep darkness on the other side of life, which is certainly included in this film, but for Borzage and the characters in his films, the meaning of life is love, and it always comes back to it in some way.
After Irene’s jealous husband committed suicide when he found out that the ship he sailed in dangerous weather crashed with Irene on board and the people who were still sitting on the ship found out they were safe, Irene and Paul have nothing in the way. Love wins. Despite all the obstacles Borzage put in front of Irene and Paul, he continued to maintain the feeling that this was inevitable all along without ending cheesy or disappointingly happy.
History watching is done tonight, which you can do on the Criterion Channel or through the physical release of the movie. The romance Borzage delivers feels typical of Old Hollywood. It’s dreamy, elongated, fateful, and unrealistic in the best possible way. However, Borzage goes beyond the love we see in other famous classics by taking up the focus on love and the audience’s only desire to get there to the end. The story may seem complicated, but the goal is simple: two strangers fall in love in the end, despite all odds, and that is the real genius of Frank Borzage’s story, which is made at night.