HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT B
USA (97 mi) 1937 d: Frank Borzage
History Is Made at Night is not only the most romantic title in the history of cinema but also a profound expression of [Frank] Borzage's commitment to love over probability.
—Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
Frank Borzage is notable for having won the first Best Directing Academy Award ever issued in 1929 for 7th HEAVEN (1927), the year WINGS (1927) won Best Picture and SUNRISE (1927) won an Oscar for Best Unique and Artistic Production, winning his second Best Director award three years later for BAD GIRL (1931). Borzage, who began his career as an actor at age 13, was directing a decade later and also successful in making the transition between Silent era films and early talkies, absorbing the influence of F.W. Murnau, one of the most influential German expressionist directors in Hollywood, having emigrated from Germany in 1926, and both directors worked at Fox Studios. Known for his lushly visual romanticism where love triumphs over all, this film is no exception, though looking back at Depression era films, it’s always curious how in so many 30’s films the social reality is non-existent, where movies are an escapist fantasy, as this is a film exclusively about millionaires, where the lead characters make several trans-Atlantic ocean voyages and are awash in wealth, sipping vintage champagne, where money is never any object. If only we could all live like this, seems to be the prevailing thought, we should be so lucky. This is a tabloid romance of affluent socialites gone wrong, much of which takes place in the headlines, where wealthy shipping industrialist Bruce Vail, played by Colin Clive, the mastermind doctor in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), is facing a rocky marriage with his wife Irene, Jean Arthur, as he always jealously assumes she’s conducting affairs behind his back, becoming revengeful and spiteful, where his actions are anything but gentlemanly, showing underneath he’s a bit of a cad. So right off the bat, we realize she wants out of an over-controlling relationship and is asking for a divorce.
This small setback only seems to whet the appetite for more vitriol from Vail, who hires a slew of lawyers, detectives, and thugs to carry out his devious plots to get his wife back, no matter how underhanded and dishonorable, as all he cares about are results. When she’s in Paris, supposedly getting away from him, blackmail is the preferred modus operandus as he uses his chauffeur (Ivan Lebedeff) to sneak into her room and abduct her, holding her in his arms as the supposed “other guy” for onrushing photographers as a way of creating scandalous tabloid headlines. When Charles Boyer as Paul Dumond hears all the commotion, as he’s in the hotel room next door, he sweeps her off her feet in a gallant entrance through the window before making a clean getaway, all the while pretending to be a thief in front of the husband, returning all her stolen items in a cab ride afterwards. Of course it’s love at first sight, as Paul charms her in the way only a Parisian can, wining and dining her in the best French restaurant with music and flowing bottles of champagne, where the couple dances until dawn before reality sets in. Not to be outdone, the sinister Vail has decided the only way to get rid of the competition is to charge him with murder, actually killing his own chauffeur and blaming it all on this Frenchman who came in through the window. By the time Irene returns to her hotel, the police are everywhere and Vail has already alerted them to the dastardly deeds of a jewel thief, though he can plainly see Irene is wearing a necklace that was supposedly stolen. After the police are gone, he again blackmails his wife to return back to America with him to avoid charging her beloved Frenchman, an offer she apparently could not refuse.
Paul senses Irene is in trouble and heads for America to seek her out, easier said than done, as New York City is a thriving metropolis, and despite his best efforts, she’s nowhere to be found. So he and his partner Cesare (Leo Carillo), the greatest chef in France, set out to lure her into an infamous New York restaurant where Cesare is stirring up publicity with his authentic French fare until eventually, only in the movies, she walks in the door. What happens afterwards is a romantic take on the Titanic disaster, reunited and alone at last where nothing can apparently separate them, where they conjure up thoughts of running away to Tahiti and living a true fantasy life (Well, Marlon Brando did it), but instead return to Paris to clear Paul’s name after Vail pushes for his conviction. Yet there’s a strange and mysterious mood on the ocean voyage where they are engulfed under a fogbank and subject to the ominous sounds of the ship’s foghorns blasting continuously, complete with all the hysteria and mayhem after hitting an iceberg, where the special effects are pretty cheesy, but the panic-stricken mood is well captured, especially the montage of facial close ups. Love is never greater than when impending doom is near, and if there were ever any doubts in their lives, they have been swept away, as only their all-abiding love concerns them now. It’s all a bit convoluted, where the magic of their romance requires key plot resolutions, where the hand of God literally touches them, removing all obstacles, clearing the deck, so to speak, and allowing their love to prevail. It has a touch of Pressburger and Powell’s intoxicating romantic allure from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946), one of the greatest love stories ever made, but the narrative here is much more conventionally mainstream and lacks the unsurpassed originality of the British duo. Nonetheless, this would make an excellent New Year’s Eve movie, as it’s dripping with champagne, delectable gourmet food scenes, and the wondrous, delirious throes of love.