Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights why you’ll fall in love with Frank Borzage’s 1937 romance, History is Made at Night.
Romance was one thing studio-era Hollywood almost always did well. Love had the ability to make even the worst stories interesting and even the worst actors fun to watch. For a director like Frank Borzage, to stand out as one of the go-to directors for romantic films in Hollywood was quite the reputation to hold from the 1920s to the 1960s. This reputation helped him make a movie without any concrete story or screenplay to show for it in 1937. History is Made at Night was greenlit on the trust in Borzage’s ability to make audiences feel something magnificent no matter what the story was, and he certainly achieves that. His film also brings together two stars in roles they hadn’t stepped into yet in their careers, making a movie as romantic and as legendary as they come. History is Made at Night‘s restoration and rerelease through the Criterion Collection is a great opportunity to revisit how classic but unique the movie really is.
When the idea for History is Made at Night came about, Borzage was seeing the fruits of his hard labor in Hollywood since 1912. In audio clips of interviews with Borzage included in the special features of the April 2021 Criterion Collection edition, he describes his journey from acting to directing. He began as an actor in silent films but decided to bring his perspective behind the camera and his talent truly took off. By 1932, Borzage had two Academy Awards for Best Director and delivered a masterpiece adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. He created a romantic tragedy out of Hemingway’s story not only with the writing but the camera as well. Closeups and interesting framing made the dire romance even more palpable than other on-screen romances being produced at the time. Borzage continued to churn out great romantic films like Man’s Castle and Desire, among other kinds of films, solidifying a great reputation in Hollywood.
Eventually, Borzage’s friend producer Walter Wanger came to him with an idea for a film called History is Made at Night. Borzage was so enamored with the power of the title that he asked Wanger more about it, but there was really nothing more to share. Wanger only had around two pages written for History is Made at Night, but that was enough for Borzage to know this was a film he wanted to make. He developed a team of writers, including himself, to create a story and develop a script for History is Made at Night, but by the time production rolled around, they only had 54 pages done.
Production began without a sure ending or where the film was moving towards, but they developed an interesting story during filming. The film’s climax, involving a Titanic-like shipwreck, was incorporated thanks to happenstance. A production next door had a model ship on hand, and filmmakers decided a tragedy at sea was just what the movie needed. This huge production ask was added very late into filming. A new beginning to the film needed to be shot to make the ending worthwhile, but what resulted was a beautiful film that feels like it was planned out from the beginning.
In History is Made at Night, Irene (Jean Arthur) fights for a divorce from her jealous and controlling rich husband Bruce Vail (Colin Clive). He refuses to allow her to get away and will do anything to keep her under his thumb, even if she is unhappy and miserable with him. Bruce even pays his chauffer to act as Irene’s lover to frame her for infidelity and keep her from winning their divorce trial in court. Although, he never anticipated Paul (Charles Boyer), a suave French head waiter, to save Irene from his trap. Paul sees Irene’s exchange with Bruce’s accomplice while he drops his drunk friend off in his apartment and wanders over to Irene’s balcony. He breaks in, pummels the handsy chauffer, and pretends to be a thief to keep the detectives who show up from thinking he is Irene’s lover. He then whisks Irene away, and their first night together ends reluctantly at sunrise. The two separate, but they make promises to meet again.
Bruce tells Irene that the chauffer died the night before and they believe the man she left with last night was to blame. The wonderful charmer Paul was the night before starts to look a little different to Irene, and she ends up leaving Paris with her husband, telling Paul to never contact her again for his own sake. He doesn’t follow this advice and sets off to find Irene in New York. Eventually, he does, and the two set off alone on a ship back to Paris to clear Paul’s name as a murderer. Their voyage on one of Bruce’s huge ocean liners turns 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, seemed like complete opposites from 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 wise-cracking comedy prime with films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The Ex-Mrs. Braford. Boyer had yet to be a leading man, and his sexy love interest roles were far from using his full potential. History is Made at Night brought out the innate charm and casual coolness of Boyer’s personality, creating a persona he would employ in many of his following movies. Arthur’s previous characters were no stranger to love but usually resisted the pursuit with playful laughs. Irene doesn’t allow for the comedic side of Arthur to take over. She is in the hands of a deeply resentful man, and outside of her love for Paul, her life feels hopeless. There’s 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 showcase the general allure he has on-screen. He can’t hide behind an exaggerated character in History is Made at Night as he did with his previous American roles. The Boyer-ish character of Paul ended up working well for Boyer since many of his roles after this film resemble Paul’s toned-down Casanova personality. The two stars are more vulnerable than ever in their careers as Irene and Paul, making the love and dramatic scenes so palpable for audiences, especially those familiar with both Arthur and Boyer.
While Borzage does include impressive dialogue, he shows off what romance can be in film without the crutch of a good line. On the first night they spend together, Irene and Paul spend the whole night slow dancing in Paul’s restaurant. They hardly know one another, and when they begin to dig too deep in conversation, they decide to live in the moment they have together silently. Boyer’s gaze towards Arthur is more romantic than any beautiful line Borzage could have written. The close-up frame recognizes the power their expressions hold in creating the chemistry needed to make this romance work in the film. There’s no rhyme or reason for the way they feel. They feel drawn to each other immediately, without any explanation.
In this first scene, they recognize the once-in-a-lifetime connection they have, one that the movies like this one make us believe is possible. They both tell one another that they want to say things that society would deem too soon, but they never say what we recognize they’re feeling: love. Irene and Paul recognize that they don’t have the time to get to know the silly details like last names when their nights together always have to come to an end. Why waste time you could be spending staring into each other eyes and uttering a simple “Oh”? Borzage knows there’s no use wasting time telling us what we should feel as an audience, either.
While the story does feel surprisingly put together, knowing the history of the writing process, Borzage knows that those dramatic scenes are to get us to the moments in which Irene and Paul can be together. Romance isn’t the only thing Borzage does well, but it is certainly what is most memorable in his films, thanks to what critic Farran Smith Nehme calls his understanding of the “supremacy of love” in her interview in the special features of the Criterion edition. There may be tragedy and deep darkness on the other side of life, which is certainly within this film, but to Borzage and the characters in his films, the point of life is love, and it always comes back to that in some capacity.
After Irene’s jealous husband commits suicide when he finds out that the ship he ordered to sail in dangerous weather crashed, with Irene aboard, and the people still huddled on the ship find out they are safe, Irene and Paul have nothing in their way any longer. Love wins out. Despite all of the obstacles Borzage put in front of Irene and Paul, he continued to keep the feeling that this was inevitable all along without a cheesiness or disappointing happy ending.
Watching History is Made at Night today, which you can do on the Criterion Channel or through their physical release of the movie, the romance Borzage delivers feels quintessentially Old Hollywood. It’s dreamy, elongated, fated, and unrealistic in the best way. However, Borzage goes beyond the love we see in other famous classics by embracing the focus on love and the audience’s single desire of getting there by the end. The story may seem complicated, but the goal is simple, two strangers fall in love despite all odds by the end, and that is the real genius of Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night.