History is Made at Night molds love into the grandest of pursuits and it wouldn’t be altogether wrong in that assertion because for humanity it is one of the most euphoric, confounding, beautiful entities known to mankind. I have no qualms with saying that whatsoever.
And if there was ever a movie title to act as the quintessential summation of director Frank Borzage’s work this might well be it. This is not his greatest effort but within those aforementioned words lies the essence of his filmography. This overarching idea that romance is this unassailable force that is ethereal and grandiose — capable of combatting anything that the world might throw its way — wielded by a man and a woman when they both become so enraptured in the throes of passion. The antagonistic force might be human, ideological, or environmental. It makes no difference. As the pithy saying goes, love conquerors all. But it’s unfair to strip Borzage down completely with any attempts at generalization and there’s the necessity to look at this film specifically.
History Begins at Night revolves around an age-old device: The love triangle. A rich man named Bruce Vail (Collin Clive) prone to jealousy is looking to catch his wife Irene (Jean Arthur) in infidelity even if he fabricates it on his own. Because he’s not about to let her divorce him. Except in her time of need, the head waiter (Charles Boyer) at a highly reputed local establishment happens to be in the next room and comes to her aid masquerading as a burglar looking to purloin her jewels. Except he soon lets her go free and that might be the end of it. But Vail is not about to let his wife off scotch free and blackmails her into staying with him. He’s a real snake in the grass and this makes Irene long for Paul even more. That’s really all you need to know to get the general idea and the particulars are not what is paramount anyways. It’s enjoyable taking them as they come and watching how Boyer and Arthur react.
Charles Boyer, just coming off his American debut, was entering into the peak of his career as the token Frenchman in Hollywood and he and Jean Arthur make a charming pair. For her part, she will always be an archetype of the screwball comedienne but with this film, she’s a little different. She plays the comedic moments but right along side the melodrama — working through entire scenes with the simple inflections of the word “Oh.” And while Boyer seems suited to drama, more than his predecessor Maurice Chevalier, he does still prove he can be quite funny.
By the end, there is hardly any need to pay attention to the plot. It is enough watching these two individuals come to together into something quite spectacular with a brilliant climax as their backdrop — a stunning culmination of their relationship. It’s a titanic ending to be sure with sinking ocean liner included but that’s not all that unusual. It conjured up some similarities to Leo McCarey’s romantic drama Love Affair (also starring Boyer) and then Barbara Stanwyck’s own extraordinarily moving Titanic-vehicle. Each storyline utilizes an ocean liner as the perfect locale for a tragic love story but it’s the individuals involved who actually create the intrigue.
What struck me about this film was the fact that it does not fall into your usual categorizations. There’s comedy but not the outlandish scatteredness of 1930s screwballs and there’s melodrama but most of the time the plotting seems inconsequential. Again and again, the story falls back on the fact that this is a love story pure and simple. Indeed, history is made at night. That is what Borzage hammers home. But he wields his hammer with a deft touch.