There never has been, and never will be, another movie like 1937’s History Is Made At Night.
Directed by Frank Borzage and produced by Walter Wanger, History is one of those movies made in the ’30s that is full to the brim with so many things that shouldn’t work together but somehow do, so magically that 84 years later it’s earned its own Criterion release. On the surface, it’s a romance between Irene Vail (Jean Arthur), an unhappy woman trying to escape from a terrible marriage, and Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer), a clever Parisian headwaiter who sweeps her off her feet, but this movie is like an iceberg. What you read on the DVD sleeve is barely the tip of what it contains.
No other movie blends as many genre tropes together and creates a cohesive product that not only succeeds but sings. Romance, drama, comedy, suspense, disaster — just when you think this movie is settling into something recognizable, it shifts and builds upon itself to create something entirely new from which it’s impossible to look away. Borzage is widely known for depicting love in the face of adversity in his films, and History is among his best work if only because the adversity here starts relatively small and ends somewhere titanic. He tricks his audience into thinking it knows where this is going and then pulls out all the stops. (It’s a kindly trick, though, with a road map pointing directly at it once you know the things for which to look.)
If you’ve seen the film, no doubt you’re picking up the code I’m dropping; if you haven’t, please, I’m begging you, go into this movie completely blind. Not only will the final act blow you completely out of the water if you do, but so will the tender performances from Arthur and Boyer. Both “star-crossed love” and “love at first sight” tend to come off a little silly in the movies, a little too implausible to really be taken seriously. Even the best actors from any decade in movie history can struggle to sell it, but that is never the case here. The love story works in History because Irene and Paul don’t just fall in love with each other. Arthur and Boyer make you fall in love with them, with the idea of them together. Their love is dreamy, certainly, but it’s also a little weird, and that’s what makes it so real. Is a couple really a couple if they don’t have inside jokes that are totally inscrutable to anyone who isn’t them?
Just as engaging is Colin Clive as Bruce Vail, Irene’s possessive husband. Best known today as Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Clive’s all-too-believable capacity for a more grounded (and coded alcoholic) villain blurs the lines between performance and Clive’s real-life alcoholism. Knowing that this was Clive’s penultimate film before his early death in 1937 tinges his every moment onscreen with inevitable tragedy. Within the film itself, though, Vail shows no mercy and gets none in return. Vail certainly deserves the brutal ending History gives him, but the movie also concedes that it didn’t have to end that way for him. He did it to himself. He chose possession over love.
Borzage argues in History that love requires sacrifice — of one’s pride, of one’s social status and sometimes of one’s life — to be the kind of love that will withstand all of life’s trials and tribulations. Most of us will not endure even the least of Irene and Paul’s obstacles; that thing when you’re having dinner with your ex and your new BF happens to be the waiter, soooo awkward. But it’s movies like this one that erase the cynicism from years of disappointment and reignite a kind of faith that a love like theirs isn’t just possible in the pictures.
History Is Made At Night is one of the most joyful experiences you can give yourself, a movie that truly feels like a revelation from beginning to end.
History Is Made At Night is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.