A 1937 Romance from Frank Borzage joins the Collection

I consider myself a serious fan of classic film, but the 1937 title History Is Made at Night was unfamiliar to me before this recent Criterion release. Helmed by Frank Borzage, a former silent film actor who’d worked up to directing, the drama stars an extremely handsome Charles Boyer and a charming Jean Arthur. Both actors are allowed to show a depth of range here I haven’t seen in their other films. This is partly because, although at its heart it is a romance, the Borzage film is a mish-mash of genre. There are light, funny moments, but also elements of noir. It’s steeped in melodrama at times, and even turns into a disaster flick at the end.

Arthur plays Irene, trapped in marriage to a jealous shipping magnate (British actor Colin Clive, in one of his last films) who is obsessed with her. To mess up her plans for divorce, he sets up an entrapment scheme that is ruined by Frenchman bystander Paul. Irene and Paul are quickly besotted with each other. I am not spoiling anything, because this all happens within the first 10 minutes of the work.

So if the early portion of History Is Made at Night is that action-packed, you can imagine how the film as a whole might be. We learn in the Bluray special features that there was barely a plot when Borzage and the actors signed on to the production. They added the disaster element with only a couple weeks of filming left! It’s astonishing, really.

In a restoration explanation, the Criterion digital restoration team tell how much time was spent to clean up the work we see now: 700 hours to erase spills and scratches and other marks on the nitrate print they’d found in a film archive. This makes the viewer doubly appreciate the beauty of the cinematography and editing in History Is Made at Night. The lighting of the close-ups which caresses the faces of Boyer and Arthur, the soft focus on Irene’s carefree bare feet as she tangos in her negligee, the composition of shots as we’re shown facial reactions to a boat sinking.

Irene and Paul’s love story anchors History Is Made at Night. The work celebrates their romance like it’s a rare find. And the viewer has no doubt of their affection; despite the trite lines Irene spouts at times, it seems only natural that she and Paul would find each other, despite the odds, and fall in love.

I’m not sure why History Is Made at Night isn’t as highly revered as other movies from the ’30s. Yes, the script can be eyerollingly melodramatic, but there is so much else that is praiseworthy about the film. At least now, with this package, Criterion allows more of us to appreciate this work.

The Criterion Collection Bluray package contains special features such as:

  • a conversation between film historian Peter Cowie and author Hervé Dumont about director Frank Borzage, his style, and the story behind the production of History Is Made at Night
  • a 2019 interview/video essay with critic Farran Smith Nehme about recurring themes in three other Borzage films: A Farewell to Arms (1932), Man’s Castle (1933) and No Greater Glory (1934)
  • excerpts from a 1958 audio interview with Borzage. Among other things, the director speaks about growing up in Utah, working in mines, and how acting brought him into filmmaking
  • a 1940 radio adaptation of the work, featuring Charles Boyer
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