History is Made at Night

Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Gene Towne & C. Graham Baker (additional dialogue by Vincent Lawrence & David Hertz)
Stars: Charles Boyer (Paul Dumond), Jean Arthur (Irene Vail), Leo Carrillo (Cesare), Colin Clive (Bruce Vail), Ivan Lebedeff (Michael Browsky), George Meeker (Norton), Lucien Prival (Private Detective), George Davis (Maestro)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1937
Country: U.S.
History is Made at Night Criterion Collection Blu-ray
History is Made at Night

For just about every conceivable reason, Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night shouldn’t work. But, it does.

The film is a wild and entertaining mis-mash of styles, tones, and genres, a kind of barely controlled chaos reflected in its production. Overseen by producer Walter Wanger, who had recently started his own independent production company after more than a decade working for Paramount, MGM, and Columbia, shooting commenced with only half the screenplay written, and the climactic sequence involving a Titanic-like passenger ship striking an iceberg and threatening to sink was added during the last two weeks of production, necessitating reshoots of earlier scenes. The casting was a brilliant hodgepodge of unexpected, dangerous, and inspired choices: Jean Arthur, who was known primarily as a quick-witted comedienne, was cast in a serious dramatic role; the villain, Frankenstein’s Colin Clive, was suffering from intense alcoholism and would die before the film was released; and the suave, heavy-lidded lead was played by Charles Boyer, a French actor under contract to Wagner who had only recently made inroads in Hollywood, but was well on his way to becoming an international romantic icon.

At some points, History is Made at Night (which Andrew Sarris called “the most romantic title in the history of cinema”) plays like a stark melodrama, while at other points it plays like a romantic comedy, and it even has scenes that feel like they were ripped from a Hitchcockian thriller. Conventional thinking suggests that a cinematic stew of this sort shouldn’t work as classical entertainment, and yet it does. Again and again. Borzage, who was known for his romantic sensibilities and had already won two Best Director Oscars, including the first ever awarded for his 1929 silent film 7th Heaven, was an alchemist, and here he is at the top of his game, stitching together disparate storylines and ideas and tones into something that feels entirely of a piece.

The main storyline, which is credited to screenwriters Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker (regular collaborators who wrote more than 20 films together between 1933 and 1940), with additional dialogue credited to Vincent Lawrence and David Hertz, involves a love triangle. Irene Vail (Jean Arthur) is the abused wife of maniacal shipping magnate Bruce Vail (Colin Clive), who she is trying to divorce. Bruce will have nothing of it, and he conspires to have his chauffeur Michael (Ivan Lebedeff) force himself upon her, at which point he will “catch her” in another man’s arms, thus derailing her divorce claims. The plan is foiled by Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer), a debonaire headwaiter who overhears the commotion and rescues Irene by pretending to be a burglar who has broken into the apartment. He whisks her away, and they spend a romantic night at Chateau Bleu, the Parisian restaurant at which he works that is overseen by Cesare (Leo Carrillo), the comically egotistical Italian chef. Alas, as with all great romances, there are roadblocks between Paul and Irene’s happily-ever-after, most of which are driven by Bruce’s borderline-insane jealousy and refusal to let her go. At one point Irene disappears into the United States, and Paul, in a fit of romantic desperation, goes there with Cesare to open a restaurant that will be such the talk of the town that it will lure her out and they can be reunited. And then, of course, there’s that ship and iceberg I mentioned earlier …

Borzage manages the narrative messiness and frank absurdities of the plot with such a deft touch and romantic confidence that you can’t help but admire the coherence of his achievement. He is helped in large part by his cast, who fill their roles exceedingly well, even when cast against type. Boyer is as smooth as he is dedicated to his romantic cause, while Jean Arthur gives Irene a genuine sense of headstrong independence and strength that is nevertheless hardly immune to the lure of true love. Clive’s own personal demons haunt his performance as the demented magnate-husband who is incapable of imagining someone not wanting to be with him; he brings notes of true horror to the film, and it is one of the great tragedies that his own life ended so abruptly. Special note should also be made of Leo Carrillo’s comical supporting role as Cesare, which easily could have been limited to ethnic humor, but instead becomes a portrait of real friendship and devotion. History is Made at Night is at its heart a swooning romance between Paul and Irene, but that is only made possible by Paul and Cesare’s bickering bromance. That the film not only has room to include this relationship, but makes it feel as genuine as it does is testament to Borzage’s artistic prowess in making the impossible possible.

History is Made at Night Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video conversation between author Hervé Dumont and film historian Peter Cowie
  • Interview from 2019 with critic Farran Smith Nehme
  • Audio excerpts of a 1958 interview with Borzage
  • Radio adaptation of the film from 1940, broadcast by The Screen Guild Theater and starring Charles Boyer
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Essay by critic Dan Callahan
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 13, 2021

    As the restoration featurette included on the disc amply demonstrates, there was a great deal of work that went into Criterion’s new high-definition presentation of History is Made at Night. The 4K transfer was scanned from a 35mm duplicate negative preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, with a few sections scanned from a 35mm safety fine-grain print. There was a significant amount of digital clean-up involved, removing virtually all instances of dirt and damage and instability, leaving us with a largely clean image that looks and plays significantly better than any previous home video release. The black-and-white image has good detail and contrast, and it looks very much like a product of its time, with sometimes heavy grain and a general thickness to the texture. The image isn’t always super sharp, especially in long shots and transitions, but that is to be expected. The original monaural soundtrack was mastered from the nitrate optical soundtrack negative and sounds very good. Most of the supplements are dedicated to director Frank Borzage, who until now has not been represented in the Collection. We get a new 24-minute conversation between author Hervé Dumont (author of Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic) and film historian Peter Cowie about the breadth of Borzage’s career and the place of History is Made at Night within it; an interview from 2019 with critic Farran Smith Nehme about the consistent role of romantic love within Borzage’s filmography, with particular attention paid to his 1932 adaptation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes; and half an hour of audio excerpts of a 1958 interview with Borzage from the collection of the George Eastman Museum. We also get the compete 1940 radio adaptation of the film, which was broadcast by The Screen Guild Theater and featured Charles Boyer reprising his role and an informative featurette about the digital restoration of the film

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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