Blu-Ray Review | History is Made at Night | 1937
|Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur in Frank Borzage's HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.|
There are few filmmakers who could juggle so many genres, not just in their careers but in a single film, with such grace as Frank Borzage. Borzage, who won the very first Academy Award for Best Director in 1929 for 7th Heaven (and again in 1932 for Bad Girl) had a reputation for making incisive love stories. An eternal optimist, Borzage was the kind of filmmaker who believed deeply in true love, and managed to convey that on screen without an ounce of sentimentality. Love certainly conquers all in Borzage's films, but he displayed a keen understanding that it wasn't always an easy road.
It's such a wildly unlikely scenario that could only happen in Hollywood, but Borzage handles it with such charm and wit. Boyer and Arthur are a magnetic pair, and Leo Carrillo provides memorable comic relief as Paul's boss and best friend, the world-renowned chef, The Great Cesare. Yet perhaps the standout here is Clive, Dr. Frankenstein himself, in one off his final performances. Clive, suffering from alcoholism and mere months away from his untimely death from tuberculosis and pneumonia at the age of 37, is terrifyingly intense here as the jilted, jealous husband, who is himself an alcoholic. It's an almost painful performance to watch in hindsight, but Clive is tremendous here, displaying a towering talent cut down far too soon.
That Borzage was able to juggle so many disparate elements into such an endearing picture is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker. History is Made at Night takes high drama to nearly ridiculous heights (a jilted ex-husband ordering a steam ship captain to go into an ice field at top speed in hopes of sinking the ship to kill his ex-wife and her new beau is the very definition of "extra"), but by God this thing works, and not only merely works, it works like gangbusters. It lays out a kind of epic romantic template that would be followed by James Cameron in Titanic decades later (there's no way Billy Zane's Caledon Hockey wasn't inspired at least in part by Clive's Bruce Vail). It grounds its wild plot with endearing characters, charming comic relief, and a deep and abiding belief in the power of love to conquer all. You'll find no cynicism or irony here, Borzage plays it 100% straight, and the result is something quietly enchanting, a guileless and wide-eyed paean to romance whose innocence never feels in any way cloying - it's just pure classical Hollywood magic.