History is Made at Night

Before a few months ago I had never heard of Frank Borzage (GASP), the director of History is Made at Night. And no wonder! On the poster above his is the smallest name down at the very bottom. I know film stars are important and all that, and during the studio era producers, not directors, held most of the power, but still I can’t believe how little credit Borzage gets for this film. Sure he is credited on IMdB, but a mere description of a film and its director cannot fully convey a directors touch on a film and the unique look and feel he/she creates. Actors gave us the faces and voices we love and thus we feel most connected to them. Producers such as Arthur Freed or David O Selznik gave us expansive collections of film with a unified look, often skulking in the background but also acting as the big name attached to a picture. Many famous directors have clearly identifiable styles, themes, and looks, directors like Kazan, Hitchcock, Minelli, or Capra. But as much as camera men tend to go forgotten, directors whose names didn’t make it as big or who simply have not been remembered as infamously, tend to be under appreciated. This is one such example. This film is a comment on the human experience of chance and love, acted and directed so well that the story feels spontaneous, yet grounded, and the characters are wonderfully easy to identify with. This film so clearly has Borzage’s mark on it, it could not have been made by anyone else.

Surprisingly, after seeing History is Made at Night you already have a sense of his directorial style and can see how his influence, pared with the great acting talent of Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer, makes this film special. In the direction and camera use Borzage creates a world that uses the conventions of 1930s film (the glamorous mise en scene, over dramatic acting, and even lofty way of speaking ala Kathrine Hepburn) but has enough humor and practical sensibility to be self aware and relax away from those conventions. And its so gosh darn refreshing.

The film starts out like any other film from the 30’s (except perhaps a little more confusing). What makes it initially confusing but ultimately wonderful is the films ability to drift from one genre to another. From Gangster, to Noir, to Screw Ball comedy, and Adventure. It doesn’t settle into one genre from the start or even at all. And amazingly enough, it is not a complete disaster. What it does is to quickly shift away from the stereotyped 1930’s conventions of high society and to lift the screen of put on haughtiness. It is so surreptitious and stealthy in this transition that before you know it you are watching something that feels real. Really real, not 1930’s glamorous real. Because the cool aloof manner of silk and champagne is gone, you feel you can get close to the characters. They draw you in with their playful unpretentious charm. What you get then, is a more raw, but still beautiful film about finding love, taking it, and living in the moment before it’s too late.

History is Made at Night captures those moments in life you want to suspend, where everything slows down so you can soak it all in and gobble each delicious moment.  And yet it is that suspension of time and removal from the rest of the world that makes you even more acutely aware how how quickly the moment will be over. You always wonder if you could just stop time and exist in that moment. And it doesn’t have to be a romantic situation. It’s seeing the sunrise before graduation or 11:59 pm on your birthday. It’s when you can sit in silence with someone and just think, because being in each others presence is enough and anything else is superfluous clutter. Most films show you characters who experience moments like this. But this film lets you share these moments and experience them with the characters.

What is beautiful about this film is that it captures these moments in a variety of circumstances. While these moments occur between the two leads of the film who (spoilers, but not really) happen to fall in love, they are not all lovey dovey gooey eyed moments of the variety that make one want to vomit. The subtlety and deftness of Borzage in developing the romance throughout the film is something I have never seen done quite so well before in so touching and realistic a way. Let me explain what I mean by my ambiguous and broad claim of it being “realistic” before this gets too ridiculous. The romance doesn’t start as romance. It doesn’t even start with friendship. It starts with two people who are thrown together but who almost immediately begin to enjoy each others company and play off their natural chemistry (screwball comedy). The film isn’t asking you to believe more, expect more, and it certainly isn’t rushing the characters into “true love” (just give me a break and accept the air quotes). If you look at the picture directly above, you can see the affection, ease, and love between Paul and Irene. It feels right. It feels real. This scene is not only one of the most touching in the film, but one of the most gentle, moving and intimate scenes I have ever seen. Two people in a kitchen in the middle of the night, playing house and adoring each other. That is love.

The entire scene is of them playing house is wonderfully playful and endearing, but the moment that immediately makes the scene so intimate and painfully emotional without being sappy occurs when Irene (sitting on Paul’s lap) leans in to rest her forehead against his cheek. We can see Paul’s profile and reaction, but he is not the focus of the shot. Because of some clever camera placement and framing, Irene is the clear focus, even though all we can see of her face is her mouth as she talks of forgetting the past and escaping, wishing to live forever in that moment with him. Its so simple and subtle, a short moment that is wonderfully underdone. The moment is gone before we realize it. The film has moved on and doesn’t let the audience linger in the lovely moment (whether we are ready to move on or not). It leaves us yearning for that moment to return. The film has effectively made the audience feel not only what the characters are feeling, but affecting the audience emotionally in the same way these ephemeral moments affect us in real life. The film then has become more than about Irene and Paul. It is about us. It is about how we experience and share these moments with other people. Because the film so effectively shares the characters experiences with us, to the extent that we experience it with them, we as the audience feel not only that we know Paul and Irene intimately, but that we want to be them. Maybe even that we are them. To say “I know that moment. I know what they are feeling. I know why they are behaving the way they are. They are feeling and behaving the way I did when I was in love.” That is what makes the film so real.

Borzage doesn’t force the intimacy between the characters and he doesn’t force us into an intimacy with them through the camera. It is not a love scene as we might expect of characters openly confessing their passionate love and devotion for one another while the camera invades the moment so we as the audience can live vicariously through them. It is a love scene without the drama which Hollywood had conditioned us to expect from a love scene, especially from the melodrama of the 1930’s. So all that is left is the love.

History is Made at Night (1937)  is, like life, made up of moments. You don’t always know which ones will become important or memorable, but from time to time life slows down enough for you to recognize a moment as it is happening and appreciate it for what it is (even if you can’t fully know what it means). History is Made at Night accomplished both these through the camera work, the direction, and the acting. There are moments when Irene and Paul are not aware of the significance of the moment they are creating, but the audience is aware of the moments significance because of the camera work.
For instance, there is a point soon after they have just met when they decide to dance. It is a tango, very dramatic music bordering on comical. Side note, it is the same music to which Jack Lemmon (in drag) dances to in Some Like It Hot. In both films, the tango scene ends in an empty and closed restaurant with only the one couple and the band playing the music.
But enough of my obsession with Billy Wilder–In the scene, which could be played very dramatically and seductively (as demonstrated by Lemmon, above) Irene keeps tripping and takes off her shoes. The next shot is of Paul and Irene but only from the knees down, Irene barefoot, as they dance a tango. It is a beautiful moment, but one which the characters have not slowed down enough to realize. Near the end of the film, the characters have to make some serious choices, and their decisions are not always what you expect. The gravity of the decisions and the situation however makes every moment feel significant. Each moment has a weightiness to it. But this knowledge of the moment makes it seem all the more fleeting.
History is Made at Night will constantly surprise you. As a person who likes to predict (and is often good at predicting) what will happen in a film, this one delighted me. It gave me everything I wanted in a 1930’s gangster noir screwball adventure. And much more than I expected. If you believe in real love, this film is for you. If you think “true love” is overrated, well, this film just might convert you.

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