Saturday, August 29, 2009

Review: History Is Made At Night (1937)


Having heard of History Is Made At Night (1937) for years, I was always under the impression that it was a screwball comedy. After all it starred one of the screwball queens, Jean Arthur during the height of the genres popularity. From things read in passing, I knew it had some comic elements and romance was involved. Come to find out after finally seeing it, History Is Made At Night is not a screwball comedy at all and in fact, hard to categorize. It's a romantic drama, with comedic flourishes, a truly sinister villain and a disaster movie, with a touch of noir, all rolled into one. That's alot to chew on I know, but with leads Charles Boyer, the always charming Arthur and skilled director Frank Borzage at the helm, the final product is seamless.

Bruce Vail (Colin Clive) is an uber-wealthy shipping magnate who also happens to be an uber-possessive control freak over his wife, Irene (Arthur). His constant harassment about a would be "other man" in her life, drives her to the breaking point and she files for divorce. On the eve of the final decree, having found no evidence of infidelity on her part (since there was absolutely none to find), Vail contrives a scheme to plant his chauffeur in her apartment then bust in on them with a detective in tow, in order to nullify the proceedings. When the chauffeur tries to enact the sordid plan in Irene's swank Paris digs, the scene is witnessed by Paul Dumond (Boyer) on the neighboring balcony. He realizes what is happening and enters through the balcony door and pops the chauffeur across the kisser, knocking him cold, just as the bewildered husband and company charge into the darkened room. Acting as an intruder, so as not to trade one divorce correspondent for another, Paul takes Irene's jewels and then Irene herself as hostage.

Once the twosome are safely away, Paul explains himself and tells Irene he only "kidnapped" her to return her jewels. He then takes her to a fine Parisian restaurant, where he is the head waiter. There he wines and dines her and generally sweeps her off her feet. When she arrives back at her apartment, she is met by her husband and the police. You see, ever the suspicious cuss, husband Bruce believed the intruder was indeed the "other man" in his wife's life, so he killed the chauffeur in order to blackmail his wife into going back to America with him. Lunatic! In exchange, he would let her "lover" escape a murder charge. To save her newly found love from Vail's diabolical plan, she agrees. Paul, the head waiter supreme, then reads in the newspaper that the high profile couple is sailing for New York and follows his lady love across the Atlantic. Vail instigates more shenanigans in an attempt to keep his wife under his thumb and the whole film leads to a thrilling climax aboard the Princess Irene, a luxury liner owned by the demented shipping tycoon. Many shades of the Titanic come through in the latter portion of the film and it is truly an edge of your seat spectacle.

The director, Frank Borzage, was a master at the kind of romance displayed in History Is Made At Night. His sensitive, delicate direction shows a powerful love between his lead characters and the evil they face against the unbalanced Clive. When classic movie lovers think of Colin Clive, they immediately think of his turn in the two classic Universal horror flicks, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The role of the obsessed Dr. F made him immortal in the horror genre of film history but outside that genre, he is much less celebrated. He did, however, make several films outside the horror box before he died of pneumonia, exacerbated by acute alcoholism, in 1937 at the age of 37. History Is Made At Night, released three months before his death, was one of his very last roles and he pulls out all the creepy stops. Leo Carrillo is also notable as Chef Cesare, Boyer's friend and companion to America.



As for Boyer and Arthur, both were almost at their career peak when History was filmed. Arthur, whose repartee is not as snappy and defiant as it is in some of her Frank Capra collaborations, is still effervescent in her lighter scenes with Boyer. Not particularly alluring or glamorous, she emotes with that pixie-like personality and unforgettable husky voice. Never a huge fan of Charles Boyer, I can certainly appreciate his fine performance in this picture as well as others made later in his career, like Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and Gaslight (1944). His demeanor is as suave as his voice is silky smooth. Not the traditional romantic movie pairing, he and Arthur are superb together. Romance. Drama. Comedy. Suspense. Disaster. All are incorporated and tempered with great direction and performances to make History Is Made At Night a must see.

12 comments:

  1. Love, love, love this movie. After being surprised by a then-unknown to me Jean Arthur in Easy Living I managed to track down this film to see more of her work. The movie is a mash-up of so many genres, but it works together so seamlessly. Jean Arthur needs a box set asap!

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  2. What a terrific right up! I'm dying to see it even more now. :) Kate Gabrielle of Silents & Talkies did a post on this film a couple months ago. She was just as enthusiastic as you are. Kate has even uploaded this film to YouTube, so if anyone hasn't seen it, now is your chance! :D

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    1. Thank you so very much for the link :-)

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  3. Evangeline: You are so right about this film being a "mash up" of genres. EASY LIVING is great too and it was a toss up for me which film to feature in this post :)

    Tom: It really is.

    NoirGirl: I've read Kate's post and she has every reason to be enthusiastic! Thanks for the thumbs up and thanks for the YouTube info. I hope folks will see it.

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  4. Great review! I have to see this soon!

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  5. Been so long since I've seen this one. I remember when I first saw it I was creeped out by Colin Clive so much that I couldn't feel any empathy for him in anything else. Looking back I;m wondering if James Cameron didn't "borrow" some of the story here for Titanic.
    BTW, ANY time you bring up Jean Arthur is a blog worth reading. I adore her.

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  6. This sounds wonderful-I can always count on you for bringing up films that I have never seen or heard of!

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  7. You got me again Rupert. You are one person who gets me now and again on a classic I have not seen with actors or actresses that are famous even. I have to see this one soon. sounds like a winner. It doesn't sound like a dead cause that is for sure it sounds like ITs ALIVE ALIVE! I had to my friend. You know we like those jokes.

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  8. I have always loved this film...ever since a high school teacher said it was the "most romantic" film she'd ever seen. She was right. It was romantic, funny, elegant and terrifying. A lovely Valentine that showed how passion could drive a man mad. Each character was brilliantly tailored for the actor. Arthur's vulnerability, Boyer's tenderness, Carillo's humour, and Clive's hellish madness. I knew nothing of the man when I first saw HISTORY. Now I see it as the performance of a lifetime, and a dying man going out with all flags flying...

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    1. Just saw it again on TCM! It's a good movie and I enjoy it every time.

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  9. Thanks for the excellent review - have heard of it but don't think i have seen it. Will definitely check it out as i am a big fan of Jean Arthur and admire Charles Boyer.

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