These notes accompany the screening of Frank Borzage’s History Is Made at Night on January 5, 6, and 7 in Theater 3.
Frank Borzage (1893–1962) (like last week’s subject, Leo McCarey) was a great romanticist who deserves to be better remembered. In the silent period, after a decade-long apprenticeship as a director and sometime actor, he made such visually striking, stylish, and deliriously romantic films as Seventh Heaven (winner of the very first Oscar for directing), Street Angel (which we looked at last spring), The River, and Lucky Star, all starring Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor (except for the forgettable Mary Duncan in The River.) Borzage’s career took a few strange turns in the sound period, especially for a former minor silver miner from Salt Lake City. For example, he directed two films based on classics by the Hungarian novelist Ferenc Molnár: Liliom (1930, also starring Farrell) and No Greater Glory (1934, based on The Boys of Paul Street). In between, Borzage won his second Oscar for Bad Girl (1931), a fairly sappy soap opera. (It was a particularly myopic year for the Academy Awards, with the Best Picture statue going to the equally mediocre Grand Hotel, while Charles Chaplin’s City Lights, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, and F. W. Murnau’s posthumously released Tabu were all ignored.) Then came a period when Borzage was way ahead of his—and Hollywood’s—time in anticipating the fascist menace, and he directed two of his strongest dramas. He made Three Comrades (1938), adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (his only screen credit, coming just two years before his death) and starring the luscious Margaret Sullavan, who was probably Borzage’s most accomplished actress. (Sullavan also appeared in The Mortal Storm (1940), in which she was reunited with James Stewart, her costar from Ernest Lubitsch’s masterpiece of the same year, The Shop Around the Corner.) Borzage’s film was released in June, as M-G-M finally mustered the courage to acknowledge that the Nazis really didn’t like the Jews.
So Borzage had a busy decade, but not too busy to periodically return to his romantic roots. Especially noteworthy were A Farewell to Arms (1932); Man’s Castle (1933), which the Department of Film will be showing later this year in a special Spencer Tracy program; Desire (1936), reuniting Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper from Sternberg’s Morocco; and History Is Made at Night (1937). The latter film, declared by Andrew Sarris to be “the most romantic title in the history of the cinema,” stars Jean Arthur, Charles Boyer, and Colin Clive.
In a decade immensely rich in actresses, Jean Arthur lacked both the European exoticism of Garbo and Dietrich or the ethereal ethos of Hepburn, Colbert, or Sullavan. She also seemed to lack the love-me-or-else dominance of Davis, Crawford, and Stanwyck. And to make matters worse, she was never a raving beauty. What she had was pure girl-next-door Americanism in an era when American values were being questioned as never before. Rivaled perhaps only by Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard, in the fleeting period between 1936 and 1939, Arthur put her stamp on a kind of zany but wily woman who perhaps never existed, but whom you wished had, indeed, lived next door. Mostly in her roles for Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), but also in Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living, Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings, and History Is Made At Night, Arthur’s gift for allowing her femininity to show beneath a hard-boiled surface clearly anticipated a new kind of woman, ranging in later decades from Marilyn Monroe to Hillary Clinton.
Charles Boyer had endured nearly two decades in European films (both silent and sound) before his big American breakthrough opposite Dietrich in The Garden of Allah (1936), immediately prior to History Is Made At Night. He was to go on to a glorious career, appearing in films by McCarey, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Alain Resnais, and the incomparable Max Ophuls. He replaced Maurice Chevalier as Hollywood’s all-purpose Frenchman, but he frequently returned to both European film and live performance. Colin Clive had, of course, made his mark as Dr. Frankenstein, and his performance as the jealous husband in History Is Made At Night’s love triangle verges on being similarly over-the-top.
Borzage’s plot is typically improbable, but what matters are the romantic sparks generated by Arthur and Boyer. From Seventh Heaven on, the director was far more concerned with bringing his lovers together than quibbling with reality. Borzage accepted the proposition that movies were fantasy on its own terms. Joseph Conrad’s novel, Chance, was his first popular success after decades of disappointment. The novel reaches its denouement, like that of History Is Made At Night, at (unsurprisingly for Conrad) sea. It is constructed on the premise that our lives are full of improbable circumstances (chance happenings) that propel our destinies. Conrad (through his narrator) opines, “We are the creatures of our light literature [read here: movies] much more than is generally suspected in a world which prides itself on being scientific and practical, and in possession of incontrovertible theories.” When Frank Borzage wanted to bring two lovers together to make romantic history, neither Colin Clive nor icebergs stood a chance.