One of my favorite movie titles is also, as Andrew Sarris has said, probably the most romantic title in pictures, and names a film directed by an Italian-American from Salt Lake City who is responsible for several of the most intensely affecting love stories ever made: Frank Borzage’s 1937 European triangle tale, HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (available on DVD“> Starring France’s biggest American screen star, Charles Boyer, and Frank Capra’s “favorite actress,” Jean Arthur, the story is set in Paris and on a doomed ocean liner—-inspired by the Titanic calamity. (Surely someone involved with Jim Cameron’s Titanic saw this, because there are certain sub-plot similarities.)
With soft-focus dexterity, Borzage (pronounced Bor-zay’-gie) guides the piece from light-comedy romance—-between a high-class Parisian maitre d’ and an unhappily married American lady—-into deep-dish melodrama, as the woman desperately tries to get away from her maniacally possessive husband. As usual with Borzage, it is the complete sincerity of his belief in true love as having the power to triumph over everything, including death and probability, that helps give the picture such charm and intensity.
Equally responsible is the extraordinarily personable quality of the two stars. History is Made at Night was one of Charles Boyer’s first successes, released the year before he became enshrined in every impersonator’s act with the line, “Come wiz me to ze Casbah,” which Boyer (as Pepe le Moko) sort of said in 1938’s Algiers. (His persona also inspired Chuck Jones’ amorous cartoon skunk, Pepe le Pew). After this, Boyer’s superb performances in popular pictures like Leo McCarey’s comedy-drama Love Affair, or John Stahl’s weepy When Tomorrow Comes, propelled the Frenchman to the upper ranks of American stardom. In 1944, he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of a suave murderer in George Cukor’s suspenseful Gaslight. Working almost continually until his suicide in 1978 at age 81—-two days after the death of his beloved wife—-Boyer appeared in at least two other masterworks: Ernst Lubitsch’s final romantic comedy, Cluny Brown (1946) and perhaps Max Ophuls’ greatest achievement, the tragic love story, Madame De…(1953).
John Ford was not only the first to cast Jean Arthur in a movie (1923’s Cameo Kirby), but the first to cast her in the kind of average girl-next-door light-comedy role (1935’s The Whole Town’s Talking) she would play throughout most of her subsequent career. By the time she did History is Made at Night, Frank Capra had made her his archetypal heroine in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), solidifying the image with his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Her raspy voice became as famous as Boyer’s deep-toned French accent. She was Oscar-nominated as Best Actress for George Stevens’ war-time comedy The More the Merrier (1943), and concluded her picture career in Stevens’ acclaimed 1953 Western, Shane.
Frank Borzage (1893-1962) reached the peak of his prestige at the transition from silent to sound with two Academy Awards as Best Director: for one of movies’ most popular love stories, Seventh Heaven (1927), and for the early talkie, Bad Girl (1931). Beginning his career as an actor at age 13, he was directing a decade later, making his first important film at age 27 with Humoresque (1920)—-a romance, of course. Although Borzage continued working until the late 1950s, his most valuable sound decade was the 1930s, which included his emotional version of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1932) with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, the Depression-era classic Man’s Castle (l933) with Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young, the Ernst Lubitsch-produced romantic comedy Desire (1936) with Cooper and Marlene Dietrich, and his last successful romance classic, The Mortal Storm (1940), with Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. If any one title could represent the ardent, passionate world of Borzage, it’s either History is Made at Night or Seventh Heaven–that special place reserved only for lovers.