Monday, May 24, 2021

New on Criterion: History Is Made at Night

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur in History Is Made at Night (1937).

There are romantic comedies that veer into high comedy (like Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner) and movies that blur the line between high comedy and melodrama (like Dinner at Eight). History Is Made at Night, out in a sparkling new Blu-Ray from Criterion (also available on a standard DVD), is a mélange of the three. It’s finally rather lunatic but very entertaining.

Frank Borzage, the prince of the romantics, made it in 1937 from a script by Gene Towne and Graham Baker. They had just written You Only Live Once for Fritz Lang, which featured Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney as a couple whom fate turns into a pair of fugitives – one of the great movies of the Depression era. Borzage upped the stardust ante: History Is Made at Night pairs Jean Arthur with Charles Boyer. She plays Irene Vail, a model (or “manikin,” in the movie’s thirties vernacular) who is struggling to get out of a miserable marriage to a jealous tyrant, played by Colin Clive. (Their relationship anticipates that of Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan in Max Ophüls’s 1948 Caught, which is a more serious – and more frightening – picture.) Clive’s Bruce Vail is a shipping magnate who insists his wife is leaving him for another man and is obsessed with keeping her. But since he can’t find evidence that he’s being cuckolded he invents another man: he pays off his chauffeur (Ivan Lebedeff) to get her into a romantic clinch in Paris so that he can stymy her attempts at divorcing him. (The French legal logic eluded me here.) Boyer plays Paul Dumond, a Parisian headwaiter who just happens to be passing by the French windows outside Irene’s hotel room – having put an intoxicated customer to bed – and rescues her by knocking out the chauffeur. When Vail arrives with his lawyer, in order to avoid compromising Irene (as the chauffeur was supposed to have done) Paul pretends to be a thief robbing her of her jewels and “kidnaps” her. Naturally, they fall in love. But Vail assumes that Paul’s appearance in her hotel room was no accident and that Paul is the lover whose existence he’s suspected all along. So he beats the poor chauffeur to death and frames Paul for the murder.

Vail is, of course, the melodramatic element, and Clive, who’s as thin as a rake and wears a perpetual snarl, is an obvious choice for the part. Clive was famous for playing Frankenstein in James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but his film career was short-lived; History Is Made at Night was his penultimate movie. (He died of pneumonia complicated by alcoholism at the age of thirty-seven.) Evidently he had genuine acting chops – he’d followed Laurence Olivier into the role of Captain Stanhope in the West End production of the World War I play Journey’s End and repeated his portrayal in the 1930 film version – but you wouldn’t know that from his hysteria-tinged performances in this picture and his horror movies (which also included Mad Love with Peter Lorre).

 It’s the chemistry between Boyer and Arthur that makes History Is Made at Night memorable and the glorious class confusion deriving from their casting that gives it its high-comic credentials. Arthur’s fluttery, flattened contralto and her deeply pleasing modesty made her the ideal candidate for Western and Midwestern characters (though her birthplace was actually upstate New York), but she had a moonbeam quality that lent her an unexpected glamor, and she was a marvelous clotheshorse. Bernard Newman designed some gorgeous outfits for Irene, including a pair of satin pants with a matching jacket. In one scene she wears the fur coat Bruce gave her thrown over her shoulders like a cape and buttoned at the neck – like a woman so unimpressed by high fashion and so irresistibly eccentric she winds up inventing her own style. Boyer is the most seductive Frenchman who ever made a movie, but in History Is Made at Night he spoofs his own romantic panache, as he did later the same year in Tovarich, opposite Claudette Colbert: there he plays a White Russian prince who is obliged to work as a butler, and here he’s a headwaiter who comports himself like an aristocrat. The restaurant that employs him, Le Château Bleu, boasts the most famous chef in Paris, Cesare (played winningly by Leo Carrillo) – but Paul is equally celebrated. After spiriting Irene away from the hotel room, he ferries her to Le Château Bleu just as Cesare is locking up; he persuades him to reopen and whip up his best dish for them, and, promising to ply the sleepy musicians with champagne, convinces them to provide dance music. It’s one of the most charming courtship scenes in a decade that proffered many fine ones. Carrillo is one of the subsidiary delights of the picture, as an Italian émigré who treats Paul like a beloved nephew. Cesare malaprops sublimely: at one point he refers to “the female of the spices,” an apt error for a maître of haute cuisine.

The daffiness is distinctly thirties, and the nutty romantic logic is the high point of Towne and Baker’s screenplay. When Paul learns that Irene has returned to New York with Vail (he doesn’t know it’s her attempt to protect Paul from her husband’s wrath), he and Cesare follow and open up a restaurant there: Paul assumes that, sooner or later, she’ll walk through its doors. The irony at the heart of the story is that Bruce’s baseless jealousy winds up throwing her into the arms of a stranger, and he’s the one who wins her love. (Arthur’s best moment is her reading of the speech where, laughing in desperation, Irene tries to explain this to Vail.) But the last act of the film – where Irene and Paul sail back to Paris on Vail’s spanking new transatlantic liner and Vail’s psychopathic instructions (via radio) to the captain to break the speed record in a fog send the ship hurtling into an iceberg – is jaw-dropping.

Criterion’s reconstruction makes all the visual components of the movie glisten – the Parisian décor and the gleaming appointments of the liner (Alexander Toluboff designed the production), and the expressionistic shadows in some of the exteriors and some of the interiors (David Abel and an uncredited Gregg Toland lit it). The movie looks gorgeous. The interplay between the two stars is gorgeous.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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