*N.B. I have the worst copy of this film in the world, hence the horrifying screen caps.
Aaaaaaaand I’m back! Sorry for the radio silence. I would make my excuses, but they would be just that: excuses. Plus, this is my blog, so I don’t have to. Ha! In any event, I was inspired to write about this film for two reasons: 1.) Jean Arthur’s character is named Irene, and we were just visited by a lovely lady who was similarly christened (thanks, Mother Nature!). 2.) Awhile back, Dana Delany tweeted about it. At the time, I was so knocked out because I’ve never heard anyone mention this film before. Ever. Which is a shame, because it is really a wonderful, forgotten little gem. Obviously Dana is a woman of good taste!
Frank Borzage’s History Is Made At Night is interesting in many contexts, not the least of which is that of Jean Arthur’s career trajectory. It was released the same year as Easy Living (1937), that imitable classic of 30s screwball comedy which we have already discussed. Yet for Arthur, it represents an entirely different challenge, one that she rises to admirably and which enriches her resume beyond the comedic archetype that modern cinephiles so narrowly remember her by.
Arthur’s Irene Vail is the abused wife of millionaire ocean liner magnate Bruce Vail (Colin Clive). Violently possessive, Vail is a man who sees perceived betrayal in Irene’s every move and treats her as if she were one of his ships; an empty vessel whose sole purpose is to be filled with the reflection of his desires. When Irene finally decides to leave her husband, she runs away to Paris (cinematic city of dreams!), with Vail in dogged pursuit. There, he concocts a scheme to forestall the divorce settlement by orchestrating a fake rendezvous between her and his valet.
Unfortunately for Vail, an interloper by the name of Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer) stumbles upon the scene, and in order to save the damsel in distress, stages a robbery undercover of which he spirits Irene away. Outwitted, Vail kills the valet and plots to frame Paul, whom he rightly suspects is no thief, and wrongly assumes is his wife’s lover. From this tragedy, the romantic spectacle at hand is born. . .
As Paul whisks Irene off into the night, her fears about him are immediately quelled when he returns her stolen jewelry. Suggesting that she take some time to think about her situation, he squires her to a closed restaurant and not only persuades the head chef (Leo Carillo, whom one might remember as the comedic foil in another Arthur vehicle, 1935’s If Only You Could Cook) to reopen, but also badgers the orchestra to stay for an afterhours session. Clearly he must be a man of much importance to extract such preferential treatment, especially in light of the fact that he is escorting a young lady clad solely in a nightgown and slippers.
Sensing Irene’s fear of discussing her domestic situation, Paul gently draws her out by painting a face on his hand and introducing it as “Coco,” the woman he “lives with.” Coco henceforth becomes a running gag between the couple, appearing whenever the two have trouble expressing their emotions. Charmed by this whimsical gesture, Irene eventually confides in Paul as to just how dire her marital situation is, and as the night stretches towards dawn, naturally they fall in love. Amidst this fantastical setup, there is a rapturous moment when Paul whirls Irene around the dance floor as the gauze of her nightgown casts a storybook effect around their graceful bodies, stippled only by the discordant interruption of her clumsy slippers. Like an errant Cinderella, Irene throws caution, and her shoes, to the wind while peals of laughter, so idiosyncratic and beautiful they could only ever belong to the likes of Jean Arthur, ring out.
Sadly, the morning after is not quiet so magical for our hero and heroine. After returning Irene to her hotel, promises are made to meet again that very night, but fate intervenes. Happily bounding into her room, Irene is taken aback by the presence of her husband and a handful of police officers. Ignorant of the murder that has occurred, she nervously plays the stooge and lies to them about the “robbery”, claiming that the thief rode her around for hours before ignobly dropping her in the middle of a vacant street.
Vail, however, isn’t fooled for a minute and in a tense scene where Borzage employs the use of a large wall mirror, he spies evidence of his wife’s treachery: she is wearing a piece of jewelry that Paul supposedly stole. The mirror, favored cinematic device of double sight, projects two trajectories which intersect through the eyes of the viewer. We see what Irene sees (the last gasps of a man trying to hold something which can never be his), and what Vail sees (a duplicitous woman shielding her lover), but the third truth, the mirror’s truth, is our own. Husband and wife live on opposite planes of existence, and wherever they should meet, only tragedy can follow.
Once the room is cleared of detectives, Vail confronts Irene about her lies, and about the murder. He makes plain his plan to hunt down Paul and have him led to the guillotine. Frantic to keep Paul from harm, Irene acquiesces to her husband’s demand that she set sail for New York with him that very night, which in turn, keeps her from the scheduled reunion with Paul.
Back in the heart of Paris, a refreshed and ecstatic Paul begins his day at the very same restaurant where he romanced Irene the night before. Alone, he was as much a mystery man to the audience, as he is to Irene, and as befits the typical Borzage hero, his entrance into the plot is dramatically filmed amidst a play of shadows and light. This thematic trope is one of the most interesting points of the film, for when his true identity is finally revealed to us, and much later in the narrative to Irene, we learn that he is not a caped crusader endowed with superhuman powers, but a real, live, “every man.”
In this case, his rather common identity takes the form of a head waiter (albeit one of the best in the city) who is attentive to the needs and quirks of his upscale clientele. While he goes about his work, blissfully awaiting the hour when he will reunite with Irene, head chef and best friend Cesare, chastises Paul for holding unrealistic expectations of love.
This, too, is a favored theme amongst Borzage’s work. In his world, the idea that love is other worldly and sublime is not an unrealistic affectation of art, but a solid truth, one that can endure against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. So while most of History Is Made At Night remains the stuff of fantasy, the inclusion of Paul strikes at the heart of Depression era longing; that is to say, that ordinary people can be capable of extraordinary feats, and wherever love involves itself, the common becomes uncommon.
When the appointed time comes and Paul is left waiting, Cesare feels that his admonishments have been vindicated. But Paul knows better. Convinced that something terrible has befallen Irene, he races to her hotel only to find that she has decamped. Undeterred, he presses onwards, and by chance, stumbles across an item in the society section of a newspaper that details her passage back to America.
Up until now, Paul has been as ignorant of Irene’s identity as she is of his. When he discovers that she is Bruce Vail’s wife, he is taken aback, but decides to pursue her in spite of Cesare’s loud and dire warnings. Without skipping a beat, the two immediately set sail for America.
Of course, the difficulty with this plan is that in a pre-internet world, Paul has no idea how to find or contact Irene. So he hatches a somewhat suspect strategy that involves manipulating the owner of a restaurant into hiring him as the head waiter and Cesare as the head chef. His intent is to make the place into the toast of the town, a hot spot that everyone with a certain social panache will go out of their way to patronize. Eventually, he muses, Irene will hear of it and come to call.
This interlude is arguably the weakest portion of the film, for it calls on the audience to make a leap of suspended disbelief so wide that the Grand Canyon seems scalable by comparison. Even if Paul was capable of turning a two-bit watering hole into the talk of New York society, such a feat would take years to accomplish, and at that point, it is questionable as to whether Irene would even still reside in Manhattan.
Borzage relies on his ability to have already inculcated an atmosphere so humid with pathos, that the viewer’s emotional experience is not harmed by any lingering doubts of logic. On this score, he mostly succeeds, especially by including such sentimental touches as having Paul keep a reserved table, freshly decked with flowers, on hand for Irene’s imminent arrival. No one is allowed to sit there, and woe to the patron who attempts to do so.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Irene has given up the idea of divorcing Bruce, fearing that should she take such measures, he will root out Paul and seek revenge. Still, she cannot abide living with him, and instead adopts a pseudonym as she ekes out a living as a showroom model.
But no sleight of hand goes unnoticed by Vail, whose private investigators have been tracking Irene’s whereabouts almost from the very hour of her departure. By chance, the Parisian police happen upon a suspect whom they believe committed the murder of the valet, and Bruce, assuming that the man in custody must be his wife’s lover, uses the opportunity to draw Irene back into his sphere.
Once again, he offers her a choice: return to him as a wife in every sense of the word and he will save the man she loves from certain death. Or, they can remain apart, and Vail will let him die. Believing that the man in question is Paul, Irene reluctantly relents to Vail’s manipulation. For the couple’s reunion, Vail arranges passage to the trial in Paris on the Hindenburg (pre-explosion, obviously), and tells his wife of plans to name his next ship after her.
Bruce: Well, what do you think of your portrait? I had it painted from a cherished photograph, and I’m going to hang it in the Royal Suite of the Princess Irene.
Irene: By the neck, until it dies?
On the night before they are to set sail, Bruce asks Irene to dine with him, and feeling that she has little choice other than to accompany him, Irene agrees. Naturally, in Borzage’s world, the question of where they will go is moot: Paul’s restaurant is the only restaurant that exists in this fairy tale. This most innocuous of gestures, that a husband and wife should eat together, becomes an act of intense longing for the audience, who await on tenterhooks the visual spectacle of seeing Paul and Irene, once again, occupy the same frame. For now, in the last third of the film, it dawns that the two main characters have spent more time apart than they have together.
Over a tense overture of minutes, the Vails’ arrival is marked by several point of view shifts as the camera plays hide and seek from the fated sight line of our two lovers’ finally intersecting. When at last they see each other, it is a moment fraught with immense catharsis. Irene’s formerly sullen, fearful countenance breaks into mirthful joy, as she is overcome with the knowledge that the man on death row in Paris must certainly not be her beloved Paul.
Meanwhile, her laughter throws Paul into a state of despair. He mistakenly believes that her reaction is due to discovering that he is but a lowly waiter, and not the hero he appeared to be on that fateful night many months ago. Leading the Vails to the perpetually reserved table, his expression is unfathomable as he suggests the exact menu Cesare prepared for Irene on their first meeting (Lobster Cardinal, Salade Chiffonnade, and Pink Cap Champagne ’21). Alone in the safety of the kitchen, he lets down his guard and angrily confides in Cesare that he has made a fool of himself over a woman who could never have loved the real him.
Innocent of all this, Irene’s elation leads her to tear up her Hindenburg ticket in front of Bruce as the two taxi home. She abruptly orders the driver to stop, and runs out into the misty night to find Paul. When they meet again, the restaurant is closed The chill of the evening is upon them, and Irene is bewildered by Paul’s coldness towards her. It seems that no one but CoCo can reconcile their differences, so Irene asks that she be brought out so that the two can talk freely, and through her, all is confessed, expressed, and resolved.
As dawn arises and they alight into the rain washed street, it seems that their lives are finally beginning anew as well. But of course, Freytag’s penultimate obstacle still stands in the way of their eternal happiness: an innocent man is about to be condemned for a crime he did not commit. When Irene reluctantly apprises Paul of this fact, he naturally feels honor bound to go back to Paris and take responsibility, for he believes the valet’s death must be due to his having struck the man. Irene begs him to instead abscond with her to Tahiti, and as the two stand, pensively, in front of the window of a travel agency, the camera slowly tightens its focus on that which is seemingly not meant to be: the happily-ever-after.
Having made the decision to return to Paris, Irene and Paul ironically end up obtaining passage on Vail’s new ship, The Princess Irene. By all indications, the occasion should be a solemn one, however Paul has made her promise that they will live each moment to the fullest while they still can. To assist in what surely will be the last days of their life together is Cesare, a happy stowaway, who sets about conjuring up culinary treats for them in the kitchen below.
As they dance and dine the night away in approximation of a honeymoon, Vail has already reached Paris, and is scheming as per usual. Angry at his wife, at his failure to secure her position in his life, he lashes out by cable at the captain of the Princess Irene, ordering him to increase speed so that the record for an Atlantic Ocean crossing will be broken. In shades of impending Titanic doom, the captain argues that the icy water they are traveling through makes this impossible. But Vail doesn’t care, he wants the record, and menaces the Captain into doing his bidding.
Naturally, this leads to the predicated outcome. . .the ship hits an iceberg. In a visual catastrophe that is still quite impressive to the modern eye, the SS Princess Irene collides head on with a mammoth mountain of ice. It materializes abruptly, parting the atmospheric fog that has permeated Paul and Irene’s “last supper,” and seemingly manifests itself as the last apparition of Vail’s anger towards a love he can never possess.
As all hell breaks loose on board, bulkhead doors are lowered, people run about in circuitous fright, fog horns mingle with panicky alarms, and Irene is thrown beneath the rubble, inches from where the terrible breach has occurred. At once, the visual grammar of the film is turned on its tail, as Borzage’s camera tilts and films the chaos from a high, skewed angle. Montages of the panic are interspersed with sequences of a frenetic “SOS” being broadcast in various languages through the telegraph wire, all while Paul races to find Irene.
When he at last reaches her, she is unconscious, and once again Paul, the “every man,” is able to shed his cloak of commonness to become super human. Lifting her in his arms, he races against time as the lifeboats fill and the ominous note of, “Woman and children first!” pitch through the blackened night.
These events happen at great pace, with an ever increasing rhythm and a symbolic bent bordering on the abstract, so that if one were to watch the last 15 minutes of the film out of context with the whole, it would seem as if Borzage were a star pupil of Kuleshov. In a more present day frame of reference, these scenes touch an unnerving pulse point of déjà vu, and it does not seem far fetched to imagine that James Cameron may have studied History Is Made At Night prior to filming Titanic. It is not only the parallel in narrative that marks this similarity, but a stylistic choice to emphasize the structure of montage in order to mark a mood, that does so. Old men stoically fight back tears as they are separated from their wives, children cry out for their parents, and crew members outrun rushing water as bulkheads are sealed.
Paul manages at last to bring Irene to safety just as the last lifeboat is being lowered. Passing his beloved into the arms of an officer, she comes to, and terrified at being separated from Paul, leaps towards the rail of the ship. As she clings to it, screaming that she won’t go, Paul’s voice rings with fear, pleading with her to get back in the boat, that they would only have a minute together before death would take them both.
But it is too late. The lifeboat has descended into the icy waves and begins to retreat. Paul sobs in despair, holding Irene to him, as the ship continues to sink.
Underscoring the tragedy, the film cuts to the figure of Vail, looming his last, as he is told that all is lost. The ship will sink. Alone in his study, having been assured that if he cannot have Irene, no one will, the actuality of what not having her means begins to set in. With a steady hand, he writes his confession. It was he who killed the valet. With that last bit of unpleasantness out of the way, Vail walks to a portrait of Irene and gives her one last look, before shooting himself. The act, again, is a precise, albeit melancholic, product of montage. There is a spotlight on Vail before the camera zooms rapidly in towards Irene’s portrait, miming how he has always seen her (as an object frozen in a priceless work of art, her beautiful composure a commodity to be consumed) and when it stops, the shot is heard. Slowly, the camera pans downward as smoke billows, echoing Irene’s latent ascent from the fog on deck, and the frame comes to rest on a model of the ship that bears her name.
Back on said ship, the last bulkhead is closing. As all motion stops, the mood turns pensive and quiet. The unlucky left aboard the sinking vessel silently pray while the diegetic strains of men solemnly singing Nearer My God to Thee run through the night. Amidst the suspended action sit Paul and Irene, high atop a stairwell on the port side of the vessel. Speaking in hushed tones, they endeavor to uncover all that is still unknown about each other, as if it were their first and last meeting. “So many things I don’t know about you,” he muses. She wants to know, “Did you always look this way?” He learns that in childhood she had braces and her hair was straight as a stick, then tells her that that they, “have nothing to fear anymore, everything now seems so little, so unimportant.” And the fog rolls onward as they valiantly await certain death.
No matter how many times this film is viewed, no matter whether the ending is known to the viewer or not, there is a steady poignancy about this scene that throbs inside one’s throat when watched. It is the pinnacle of Borzage’s meditation on mood, exploitative, yes, but effective in conveying the universally unhappy notion that humanity lives unaware of its strange purpose until death comes to rob them of it. The fight that has hitherto comprised the whole of the film is discarded, rather than excised, and we see as the lovers do: with new eyes.
And as quickly as this fleeting moment of awareness comes, it goes, taken by the steady intonation over an intercom that the bulkheads are holding and danger is passed. Sudden rapture erupts amongst the saved, men are openly weeping, and the lovers embrace for one last close up kiss before the fade-out.
It may merely be the opinion of one viewer (me), but there is a cheapness to these last few minutes that robs the film of its beauty. Perhaps it is only masochism that makes one yearn for the lovers’ demise, but the narrowness of escape does not surpass the beauty of the awakening between Paul and Irene, nor does it temper the blow that one has some how been cheated of immortalizing their perfect love and perfect selves beneath the icy waters. Still, in relation to the whole, it does ring thematically true that a miracle is performed and that love has conquered all.
Of course, no analysis would be complete without giving highest marks to Borzage for infusing the production with his own, arguably auteurist, trademarks, but this film still remains an atypical example of mid 1930s’ romantic drama. From beginning to end, there is a visual and narrative battle of opposites that miraculously manages to balance each other in terms of scope and harmony. Water, throughout, remains a visual metaphor. . .from the rain swept streets of Paris and New York, to the foggy nights at sea, and the swells of the angry Atlantic. It is as if the picture is weeping for itself, and yet, Borzage still finds a way to incorporate so many crisp shots with immense depth of focus (thanks in part to cinematographer Gregg Toland, of Citizen Kane fame) without ruining the illusion that these places, these times, are the stuff of dreams There is a lot here that foreshadows what he would go on to do in 1940’s Strange Cargo, and at times, I think of many of the Princess Irene shots in the same breath as those that take place between the main characters of Strange Cargo when they’re lost at sea in their little sailboat.
While ultimately History Is Made At Night is a tale of love defying all odds, an uncharacteristic complexity is born from the foresight of Borzage to include several scenes that are so stark as to be almost hostile in nature. The killing of the valet is not portrayed as an act of passion, but rather as a cold, utterly emotionless reaction of logic perpetrated by an illogical mind. In conjunction with this is a scene from the middle of the film, when the Vails are sailing back to America. Bruce violently accosts Irene in her stateroom, and there is nothing melodramatic about the way he wraps his hands in earnest around her throat. The intention that he could plausibly kill her is made quite clear.
Capitalizing on this, is the brilliant performance of Colin Clive, who, sadly, died from tuberculosis shortly after the film was released. His Bruce is not a typical villain tempered by an evilness so over-the-top that it borders on buffoonery, but rather, one that is sociopathic in nature. This is a much more frightening thing to witness in a film that is ostensibly about fated love, particularly because the audience is made to see that Bruce is not a part of the fantasy. He is very real, and very much possessed of a contained malice that could exist in anyone, on screen or off. Borzage and Clive walk a very precarious line with Bruce, for while the viewer stands in horror of his actions, they are still able to understand why he does what he does. It reminds me very much of Robert Montgomery’s performance in Night Must Fall, which ironically was released the same year as History Is Made At Night. Both men are understood to be utterly without a conscious, and yet, there are enough human elements within their quotidian interactions that the unsettling notion of seeing them as rational people, wreaks havoc with a viewer’s emotions.
Thankfully, there are other more genre-driven characters that provide a welcome contrast, as we seen in Cesare, whose exaggerated self-importance, and comedic tomfoolery temper whatever dictums he heaps upon Paul. Any overly harsh sentiments can always be rendered acceptable if chased down with a laugh.
As for our hero and heroine, they are all too human in their relation to one and other, and perhaps that is why, in spite of the fantastical situation they find themselves in, they belong so wholly to us. This is a direct tribute to the talents of Boyer and Arthur, as John Cromwell, friend of Borzage, once aptly observed. “In their scenes you’d swear they’re the absolute real thing. You’d suspect he had something going on the side with her, but then you’d have to say no, not Charles Boyer, and definitely not with Jean Arthur.”
When saddled with lesser talents who fail to find the thread of reality, many romances of this period suffer from the type of daydream that borders on delusional. While that may provide for a few hours of entertaining escapism, rarely does it touch the sort of emotional chord that History Is Made At Night seems to. And with a title that Andrew Sarris called, “the most romantic. . .in cinematic history” it is almost ordained, from the film’s very inception, that we believe what Paul and Irene feel for each other is nothing less than what we, ourselves, feel for those whom we have loved.
On a personal note, I’ve now discussed two Jean Arthur films, and I think it’s fairly obvious that my admiration for her borders on something close to obsessive. If I didn’t think it would skew the bent of this blog, I would happily essay every single film she ever made. But alas, that would mean changing the name from “Mildred Fierce” to “Miss Constance Milligan” (oh, you haven’t seen 1943’s The More the Merrier? Please do. NOW!). If you’re reading this, and you’re also a Jean Arthur fan, I highly recommend reading John Oller’s wonderful biography, The Actress Nobody Knew. Unlike so many truly terrible modern biographies, Mr. Oller dispenses with tabloid pabulum, deals in facts, and applies refreshing analysis to a very complex woman without ever once inferring that his read on her should be taken as scripture. It is a wonderful, no-nonsense portrait of someone that I feel is much too often disregarded when the Golden Age is discussed.
Whilst reading Mr. Oller’s book, I was quite delighted to discover that in her later years, Miss Arthur had to the opportunity to teach at my alma mater. Delight quickly dissolved into dismay upon realizing that during her tenure, she had been very shabbily treated as a “has been”, not just by the staff, but by the students as well. That is certainly not the academic community that I remember, and still hold fond memories of. Perhaps it seems silly to feel shame for things that happened before my time, however, were she alive today, I would immediate post a letter of apology on behalf of the college! But since I cannot do that, I will simply borrow a line from Nabokov instead:
(Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time-space or plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parentheses included.)