Frank Borzage: History Is Made at Night

Frank Borzage: Hollywood Romantic, Week Three
History Is Made at Night

Museum of the Moving Image
Queens, New York
July 15-August 20

If there is an unimpeachably top-drawer weekend for MOMI’s ongoing Frank Borzage retrospective, it must be the next couple of tomorrows, during which there will be screenings of the director’s 1928 silent features Street Angel and 7th Heaven, both among his best-known titles, both showcasing two actors whose career accomplishments have become inextricable from the director’s own—Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell—and both surefire short-listers in any “Essential Borzage” rundown.

Beyond their casts, the films share a sort of “lying in the gutter, but looking up at the stars” lower depths Romanticism. 7th Heaven was the first of twelve Gaynor-Farrell screen pairings; on the skids in pre-Great War Paris, our pert gamine is tortured by a malicious sister before Farrell’s ameliorating angel of a sewer worker rescues her, so that they can ascend together, via one of cinema’s more affecting crane shots, to the “heaven” of his seventh-floor walkup. Street Angel begins amid a luscious studio-bound evocation of Neapolitan slums, where Gaynor is tending to her hopelessly ill mother; in hopes of scraping together a little money, she makes a borne-of-desperation career move to which she’s absurdly ill-suited, and tries her hand at streetwalking and thievery for all of a minute before running afoul of the law. The movie’s major predicament comes through her romance with painter Farrell, and his coming to terms with her lightly checkered past.

The preceding films are as close as anything in Borzage’s oeuvre to confirmed masterpieces and have received a certain amount of much deserved attention; it’s with that in mind that that I’d like to expend some words on this weekend’s less touted feature, Borzage’s 1937 intercontinental extramarital romance-cum-disaster film, the curiously but wonderfully titled History Is Made at Night (previously screened two weekends ago), starring Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur.

Far removed from the art-directed squalor of those Twenties films, History locates itself among the vast-white-rooms-and-highballs jet set. The movie opens on crisply vile plutocrat shipbuilder Bruce Vail (Colin Clive, upholding an excellent tradition of dry, self-immolating British nasties; best remembered as Victor Frankenstein, the actor died of alcoholism-related illness mere months after this shoot) looking after his two most prized possessions: the ocean liner Princess Irene, preparing for its maiden voyage, and the vessel’s namesake, his estranged wife (Arthur), who’s been driven to divorce proceedings by her husband’s compulsive, groundless jealousy. Determined not to let the Mrs. disappear permanently in her Parisian exile, Vail devises a plan to have her publicly “compromised” in the wandering hands of her chauffeur (Ivan Lebedeff), a petite scandal to toss her case out of court.

In the first of the film’s wildly coincidental plot points, headwaiter Paul Dumond (Boyer), depositing a drunk patron in a neighboring apartment, is on hand to douse Vail’s trumped-up incident, dealing the thug one of those right-on-the-chin one-punch knockout swings so prevalent in Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking, and whisking Irene, still in her evening wear, away for a much needed night on the town at the boite where he’s employed. Wheedling head chef Cesare (Leo Carrillo, upon whose voluminous malapropisms methinks the films leans over heavily for comic effect) into keeping the place open after hours, the two talk, tango, and fall irrevocably in love.

From there the principals are run through a serpentine batch of circumstances—triggered by a trumped-up murder charge designed by Mr. Vail to keep his wife under his control and away from her mysterious savior—that lead Irene from studio-bound Paris to New York City (the 16th arrondissement seemingly shot on the same lot as Fifth Avenue), necessitating Paul and Cesare’s immigration (approaching NYC via boat: “Looka dose sky-wipers!” Sigh) to set themselves up as Manhattan restaurateurs, and... In fact, the less said about the plot the better, for History Is Made at Night unquestionably sinks or floats on the tremendous charm of its leads, and the pleasure that comes from watching them melt together.

Boyer, as a headwaiter or lover, is all unction and accommodation, but this stock seducer has none of the tarnish of a sex-dissipated Casanova on him. Borzage, ever the great one for shining up unexpected facets of leading men, builds scenes not around standard bedroom-eyed “Shall we to ze boudoir?” stuff, but Boyer’s capacity for playfulness—his bright engagement in little couples’ games, as when he and Arthur play-act at domesticity in his restaurant’s kitchen after-hours, or a recurring shtick when Paul and Irene communicate difficult adult realities through a Senor Wenceles–style character drawn on their hands, nicknamed Coco (it sounds ridiculous, but it’s absolutely charming). It’s a little more difficult to catch hold of what Arthur does here—she is so terribly forthright and sweet and primped and blonde and everything that usually suggests an absolute bore of an actress, but she keeps obstinately bobbing to the top of the film... “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she confesses shortly after meeting Boyer, and that’s the key to her unusually alert, alive performance—at any given time she can be seen intently, tremulously working to appraise her situation. Much of the reputation for extravagant romance that the film holds among admirers of classic cinema, I think, is owed to Arthur—to watch her dance with Boyer is to witness a woman falling in love in real time.

The film’s final chapters, which find the star-crossed Atlantic-hopping duo aboard the ill-fated Princess Irene as she smacks into an iceberg, may dredge up memories of a certain more-recent megabudget top-grossing King of the World romance (History, in its time, was a rather lavish production, independently produced by Walter Wanger to the tune of a million-plus; it’s purported that he abruptly penciled in the plot’s turn for the catastrophic shortly before the shooting wrapped). It seems evident that James Cameron commanded a handful of screenings of Borzage’s film before embarking on his Titantic, and placing these two films aside one another provides, if nothing else, an interesting contrast in how values and demographics had shifted in popular American film entertainment over the course of 60-odd years. I don’t care to punch any more holes in the hull of Cameron’s pleasantly saccharine bloviation—as major events in recent American moviemaking go, I can think of a dozen more pernicious off the top of my head—but its period-piece Sweet Valley High puppy love inflated into historic tragedy certainly helped to confirm that multiplex moviegoing was strictly kid’s stuff.

This isn’t to say that History is really a more serious film—what, after all, could be more broodingly serious than the adolescent sensibility that Titanic tapped? Comparing the two films’ treatments of maritime catastrophe, it’s obvious that Borzage has neither the inclination nor perhaps the ability to portray terror-stricken mass death with the awed relish of Cameron’s movie, which shows us flailing bodies going end-over-end before cracking against railings. But Cameron, certainly, has none of Borzage’s capacity for showing the defenses-down childishness of adult romance, hence the irony: as popular cinema has gone to the teenagers, it’s lost its innocence. —NICK PINKERTON