History Is Made at Night
d. Frank Borzage (1937)
The Criterion Collection

Oh boy — what have we got here? Frank Borzage’s History Is Made at Night is one of the most narratively convoluted films I’ve ever seen. Apparently the film’s production got underway simply because folks liked the title, but it had no script, nor yet even any story. Borzage was just intrigued by the romance suggested by the great title. By the time shooting was ready to start, the story was still only partially done, after work from six writers including Borzage himself, but such was faith in the studio production system things got underway. As filming continued, they discovered where they wanted the film to go in the end about two weeks — two weeks — before they were finished. Somehow they finished, though, beyond shooting a shipwreck, this required them to go back and reshoot some scenes from the beginning in order to tie some threads together. Despite the reshoots, it’s still quite the journey from marriage comedy, to gentle romance, to murder thriller, to luscious melodrama, to disaster film . . . with hand puppets — twice!

Clearly there was no intention to make the film be any one thing. It’s multiple things, even multiple films. The narrative flits around in style and tone, but beyond that it is not plausible. Notwithstanding those legitimate criticisms, History Is Made at Night is a beloved film, and I’ve seen plenty of people say, hey, I was not on board the first time I watched it but it stuck with me and now it’s a favorite.

You see, Borzage was attracted to the romance of the title, and in this film he seeks the heightened planes of emotional romantic intensity, and it’ll work if you can keep your head from being whipped around with the film’s sudden turns, forgive it for being contrived, and get engaged with the characters as they are presented, particularly Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer. I was happy to cheer them on even when my logical brain wondered how on earth this would play out in the real world, whatever that is. They’ll charm your socks off.

Jean Arthur plays Irene Vail, the wife of a wealthy ship magnate Bruce Vail, played by the arch Colin Clive.

There is trouble in their marriage. Bruce has accused Irene of having multiple affairs. Is there any basis for his suspicions? No. He’s just a suspicious, selfish, powerful, but ultimately fragile man. Irene wants a divorce, but this is when divorce was next to impossible for a woman if the man didn’t consent.

In order to keep Irene trapped in their marriage, Bruce sets up a scheme to shame her and provide evidence that she is the one at fault, not him. For some reason — and this is not the film’s narrative bli but a blip in our own ancient divorce laws — if he can provide evidence she has been with another man, he can thwart her efforts to obtain a divorce. He gets his chauffeur to enter her private chambers and hires a PI to find them and provide the evidence Bruce needs.

The plan hits a hurdle, though, when Boyer’s Paul Dumond shows up (I’ll have to watch again to see if I can understand just why he says he’s in the area), understands what’s going on, and poses as a thief to kidnap her and get her out of the entrapment scheme. This all happens in the first few minutes.

Paul confesses to Irene that he is not a thief or a kidnapper, gives her back her jewelry, and takes her out for a beautiful night in a restaurant that re-opened to serve them.

It’s zany! Particularly when we learn that Paul, while dashing, is not a wealthy gentleman who can charm the restaurant chef and its musicians — he is one of them! He’s the head waiter. He’s supreme at his job, and these people like him. I would not have stayed at work while he dances the night away, though. Okay, again, maybe if it was Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur and I could tell they were falling in love. Maybe I’d stick around for that too.

Meanwhile, dark things are afoot at Chateaux Bruce.

I don’t want to document each of the turns this makes, but as I sit here today, reliving the film and rewatching some scenes, I’m more forgiving of them. It’s possible I will be like others and find myself more enamored with the film after a rewatch, when I’m not trying to make sense of the tonal shifts. I can see it as a Love Story from its sillier moments:

And it’s tragic ones:

Yes, I think I’m falling under its spell a bit more with each still.

The Criterion Collection edition has helped me with its supplements, all of which are worthwhile. At the top, for me, are two:

First, a conversation between film historian Peter Cowie and Hervé Dumont, author of Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, which runs for about 24 minutes. It’s a wonderful conversation that begins by acknowledging just how wacky the production was but that appreciates the artistry going on to ensure the film still did something special. There’s a lot of good information, including one bit that was intriguing but sad: Colin Clive was mortally ill during shooting and was often in great pain. He died just a few months after the film was released. Somehow this knowledge deepens the Bruce Vail character for me.

Second, Farran Smith Nehme has a 13-minute feature on Borzage’s career, focusing a lot on his main period of success in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Her supplements are always worthwhile, and this one, made for The Criterion Channel, is no exception.

We also get three more on-disc features: a 30-minute interview with Borzage himself from 1958, with the audio playing over a lot of nice pictures; a 9-minute restoration demonstration (I always love these!); and a 27-minute radio adaptation from 1940. The disc comes with a nice essay, “Taking a Chance on Love,” by Dan Callahan.

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