No filmmaker in all of cinema could rival Frank Borzage as a portraitist of love and desire. Borzage’s films have the uncanny ability of wedding fragments of reality to the most idealized fantasies with an easiness that even Lubitsch would envy. The cinema of Frank Borzage documents, by any aesthetic means necessary, the ramifications of desire. Borzage’s most potent and moving films often reflect real life tragedies but show individuals who, with little more than faith in each other, can clasp love and salvation from the jaws of those tragedies.
History Is Made At Night (1937) is one of Borzage’s films that perfectly fits this criteria. The film was partially inspired by the calamity that was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Borzage and screenwriter C. Graham Baker reimagine the Titanic disaster as the thrilling and desperately hopeful climax of a film about a woman trying so hard to escape an abusive marriage to be with the man she loves.
The stakes in History Is Made At Night are always high and ever escalating as complication upon complication heaps itself upon the star crossed lovers. At every turn Borzage threatens the viewer with another potential tragedy until that fateful moment when the boat is sinking and the lovers seem doomed to drown in each other’s arms. Death can be the only catharsis at this point and Borzage administers it justly to the nefarious scoundrel of a husband.
History Is Made At Night opens in Paris with Bruce Vail’s (Colin Clive) chauffeur (Ivan Lebedeff) assaulting Irene Vail (Jean Arthur) under her husband’s orders. Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer) hears the ruckus and investigates. Before long Bruce Vail has framed Paul for murder and whisked Irene back to New York with Paul and his friend and partner Cesare (Leo Carrillo) hot on the Vails’ trail.
Each time there is a twist and the plot thickens Borzage shifts the tone of the film. At the start, when Bruce Vail gives his devious instructions to his driver, History Is Made At Night feels as though it were a crime caper. Then, as soon as Paul and Irene are asking Cesare to open the restaurant, Borzage turns the film into a romantic comedy confection as bittersweet as it is charming. Yet, in the next sequence where Irene returns home, History Is Made At Night becomes a full fledged melodrama. Every shift is flawless and organic, supported as much by Borzage’s masterful direction as by the performances of Arthur and Boyer.
Borzage’s films show audiences the humanity of love and desire; inviting our empathy and reflecting our collective hopes and dreams. But Borzage does more than just that in History Is Made At Night. In this film he simultaneously constructs a portrait of how the cinema, as a mechanism for recreating reality, depicts and renders those same two emotions of love and desire. Borzage manipulates the hearts of his audience with the same ease and passion as he controls the machinations of his medium.