HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT: Hard to Define, Harder to Forget
History Is Made At Night: Charles Boyer, Jean Arthur and Colin Clive, under the gloriously romantic direction of Frank Borzage. What’s not to love?
But loving it is easier than explaining it. Clive plays Bruce Vail, a deeply crazed shipping magnate whose creepy scheme to hang onto his wife Irene (Arthur) drives her straight into the arms of another man (Boyer). Not that she’d need to be driven there; most of us would gladly walk—or run.
Irene is desperate for a divorce, so Bruce bribes his chauffeur to break into her room and force her into a compromising position, which, by law, would halt the proceedings. Fortunately for her, Paul Dumond, a local restaurateur, overhears the scuffle in the next room and rushes to her rescue by decking the driver. When Bruce bursts in, expecting to catch his wife in flagrante, Paul—who must now explain his own presence to the suspicious husband—claims to be a cat burglar and absconds with Irene and her jewels.
Once he’s made it clear he’s not a thief, Paul whisks his breathless captive off to his cafe, where they pop open pink champagne and dine on the chef’s lavish creations in the half-lit dining room just before dawn. Fortified by the bubbles, Paul broaches the awkward issue of why Irene would ever marry a man a man like Bruce. But rather than ask her directly and risk scaring her off, he playfully questions her by painting a little face on his hand, calling the little puppet Coco, and cooing at her in a high-pitched voice.
Okay I’ll pause a moment while you read that last bit again. Suffice to say Charles Boyer is one of about five men on the planet who could pull that off without the woman smiling awkwardly while slowly reaching for her purse and backing up toward the door. Or maybe just saying to hell with the purse and running. (Oh and in the close-ups of the hand-puppet, that’s none other than Señor Wences.)
And from here, things get really complicated. But I won’t spoil it for you.
I don’t even know what to call this film: crime story, mystery, melodrama, romantic comedy, buddy movie, disaster epic, it’s got it all—even a lovely musical interlude where Irene kicks off her evening slippers and and dances with Paul as the violinist plays I Get Ideas. And as it slips seamlessly out of one mood and into another, each scene builds upon the last, making the whole film even more intense than the sum of its many moving parts.
Lovingly filmed by Gregg Toland (four years before his legendary work in Citizen Kane), the movie’s darkness and light play off each other perfectly. And under Borzage’s tender direction, Arthur, a woefully unsung leading lady, and Boyer, who never really got his due as an actor (more on that here), have never been better—whipsawing from romantic to frantic and back again. You just ache for these two to make it.
Meanwhile, Clive takes what could have been a cardboard-cutout villain and makes him dark, complicated, intriguing and even pitiable. One scene, where Bruce asks Irene to please smile at him when they’re in public, is just heartbreaking. Another, when he’s all but begging for details of her affair, is downright subversive. By then, he’s already murdered a man, framed Paul for it, stalked Irene and tried to pin a false adultery rap on her. But when she mocks him, I’m sitting there thinking, You don’t have to be so mean to him. (Such is my love for Colin Clive.) Already painfully fragile, he lived only five more months after completing this film, succumbing to tuberculosis and alcoholism at age 37.
Why this film isn’t considered a classic is an absolute mystery to me. Watch it and see if you agree.
You can catch History Is Made at Night any time on Hulu, but really, wait until nightfall: