On its surface, Frank Borzage’s History Is Made at Night (1937) has a lot in common with the urbane Depression-era comedies of, say, Mitchell Leisen or Ernst Lubitsch. A plot-inciting divorce, nighttime trips through Paris, stars Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur: they all suggests something frothy, snappy, and screwball. But the film, for all its laughter and champagne, has a darker edge than I expected. Whereas most such jet-setting romances involve false identities or class barrier transgressions, History is more an urgent matter of love vs. self-sacrifice. It is a comedy, but it’s also a movie where visual lyricism collides with bitter emotions.
The film’s unorthodox tone is most obviously signposted by Colin Clive (Dr. Frankenstein himself) and his febrile performance as Arthur’s would-be ex-husband. He’s obsessive, possessive, a shipping tycoon who treats his wife just like another ocean liner and will kill to keep her from getting away. Clive was never the most flexible actor—Karloff supplied nearly all of Frankenstein’s pathos, even under layers of makeup—but his one-note work fits well here, if only for contrast’s sake. As a paranoid mass of ego, he’s the night to Boyer’s day, with an “If I can’t have her, no one will” attitude that leads him to endanger thousands of lives… then take his own.
Meanwhile, his wife and her new French lover establish a relationship based on mutual pleasure. Arthur’s her usual earnestly American self, while no one’s more continental than Boyer, so they experience some mild culture clash. Boyer flirts via hand ventriloquism, making for an unexpected cameo by Señor Wences as his stand-in, and he engages in some comic business with his best friend, a chef played by Leo Carrillo. But the jokes, again, lie on the film’s surface. History Is Made at Night is really about the act of falling for someone, then doing everything you can to express your love for them.
That precise impulse splits the couple up, then leads them across the Atlantic Ocean before finally reuniting them on a ship bound for Paris. But this togetherness is short-lived. As they try to recreate the night they met, the film’s climax begins: a reprise of the Titanic disaster. So with the ocean threatening to swallow them up, Boyer and Arthur sit side by side on the ship’s deck, talking.
I wish I had known you so many years ago. You never really did finish telling me what you looked like, when you had braces all over your teeth…
I—I was awful. My hair was as straight as a stick and I was so shy. If anyone looked at me I’d run away. Did you always look like this? Your eyes?
The time allotted for any two people to spend together is finite. Desire is not. It’s a pain inherent to any romance yet acknowledged by so few movies. “Don’t be frightened,” murmurs Boyer. “We have nothing to fear anymore. Everything now seems so little, so unimportant.” With just a spare set, some fog, two actors, and a handful of dialogue, Borzage makes love seem the size of the cosmos.