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"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 was arguably the most unabashedly romantic director of his time. His late silent "trilogy" -- Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929) -- is the holy trinity of "love conquers all": stories of star-crossed lovers whose unconditional love transcends mortal boundaries. His 1932 screen version of A Farewell to Arms was despised by author Ernest Hemingway, yet for all of Hollywood's sanitizing of Hemingway's earthy characters, Borzage gave us a frank romance between sexually sophisticated and romantically committed adults. No other director presents love -- that is, the unequivocal emotional commitment between two adults -- as such a spiritually pure act or powerful emotional force.
History Is Made at Night (1937) is one of Borzage's masterpieces of romantic triumph through unconditional love. Produced by Walter Wanger, an independent operator in Hollywood, without the budgets or resources that an MGM or Paramount might have brought to the film, it relies on the strength of its stars: continental actor Charles Boyer, the "French lover" of Hollywood romances, and all-American Jean Arthur, best known as a spunky, street-smart gal Friday and deft screwball actress in such films as The Whole Town's Talking (1935) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).
The film depicts a chance meeting between Paul Dumond (Boyer), "the greatest headwaiter in Europe," and society figure Irene Vail (Arthur), a forthright, independent woman, trying to escape a pathologically jealous husband (played with manic intensity by Colin Clive); their encounter blossoms into true love and looks forward to Love Affair, the beloved romantic drama that Boyer made with Irene Dunne and director Leo McCarey in 1939, but without the elegance of the latter film's script. Their first meeting -- in a Paris apartment, where Irene is saved from a devious plot by Paul's impulsive chivalry and quick thinking -- plays out like a crime thriller with a screwball twist but eases into a delicately-played romance. History Is Made at Night relies on contrived plotting and an obsessive madman of a villain to throw obstacles in the way of its star-crossed couple, the savvy and chivalrous maitre d' and small-town girl turned high society prisoner. Yet the grace of Borzage's direction and the emotional conviction and palpable devotion of its two stars makes this romance glow with the fires of true love.
Charles Boyer is both debonair and down-to-earth as Paul, a man as at ease in high society as he is on the street. In so many films, Boyer was presented as either the frivolous man about town, treating romance as a sport, or the glib aristocrat skating through on charm and social confidence, and he was just as good at having fun with his screen persona as he was playing it straight. His performance in History Is Made at Night is neither spoof nor shallow rogue, however. He brings all his innate warmth and strength, not to mention his generosity as an actor, to his quietly impassioned performance, which is all the more effective for its restraint.
The gifted Jean Arthur was both a popular comic actress and a respected dramatic actress. History Is Made at Night gave her the opportunity to play to both strengths and add a glamorous dimension with elegant gowns, yet it's her easygoing naturalness that gives her character such strength. Borzage outfits her in black for her scenes with Clive and she performs as if in mourning for her lost freedom. But when she's with Boyer she is clad in white and glows with life, smiling and twinkling under the sway of love she thought was lost to her. In the film's most romantic scene, as she dances in an empty restaurant with Boyer -- a private party for two strangers who have already fallen helplessly in love -- she keeps falling out of her heels. Finally, with a mix of practicality and romantic abandon, she kicks off those expensive shoes and dances in her bare feet, sloughing off the trappings of social status to be simply a woman in love. Arthur loved History Is Made at Night for giving her the most elegant and sophisticated role of her career.
Leo Carrillo - whose greatest claim to fame came in the 1950s when he played The Cisco Kid for six TV seasons -- co-stars as Cesare, the flamboyant master chef and best friend to Paul. In this topsy-turvy world, the celebrity chef is devoted sidekick to the great head waiter, to the point that he leaves his career to accompany his love-addled buddy on his odyssey to America, and Carrillo embraces the part with gusto, good cheer and language-mangling humor.
Critics called out the creaky plotting and contrived twists of History Is Made at Night -- there's murder and blackmail and a disaster in the icy Atlantic waters that recalls the Titanic, and Colin Clive (Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 classic) plays the role as if one step away from full-blown psychopath. But Borzage's commitment to the couple and belief in the power of love to not simply conquer all but to elevate the lovers to a heaven on Earth transcends the plot. Even in the panic of a sinking ship, the sincerity and depth of their devotion brings a calm and a salvation to their ordeal. For all the artifice of the clunky screenplay, Borzage and his actors bring such a purity to their love that it even conquers the melodrama of the script.
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Gene Towne, Graham Baker (screen play); Vincent Lawrence, David Hertz (additional dialogue); Frank Borzage (uncredited)
Cinematography: David Abel; Gregg Toland (uncredited)
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Margaret Clancey
Cast: Charles Boyer (Paul Dumond), Jean Arthur (Irene Vail), Leo Carrillo (Cesare), Colin Clive (Bruce Vail), Ivan Lebedeff (Michael Browsky - Vail's Chauffeur), George Meeker (Mr. Norton), Lucien Prival (Private Detective), George Davis (Maestro).
by Sean Axmaker
"Charles Boyer: The Reluctant Lover," Larry Swindell. Doubleday and Co., 1983.
"Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew," John Oller. Limelight, 1997.
"Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity: The Film Work of Frank Borzage," Frederick Lamster. Scarecrow Press, 1981
"The United Artists Story," Ronald Bergan. Crown, 1986.