In the 24 years between 1913 and 1937, director Frank Borzage helmed more than 90 features and shorts. His is a prolific career that stretches from the silent era to the integration of sound through to sound’s eventual annihilation of the silent film. It’s a true feat considering the sheer number of artists who were left behind in these transitional phases and the downright impressive number of films Borzage was able to release despite these technological upheavals. Over the course of nearly 100 titles, Borzage left no genre untouched: thrilling action-adventures, clever romantic comedies, saccharine melodramas, fantastical Technicolor musicals, and patriotic war epics. History Is Made at Night is his 92nd known credit, and it feels like it contains morsels of each genre in which Borzage had dabbled up to that point. It shouldn’t work, but he pulls it off exceptionally well.
At the start, History Is Made at Night presents itself as a fairly straightforward narrative: Irene Vail (Jean Arthur), wife to wealthy ship owner Bruce Vail (Colin Clive), packs up and leaves her husband in the run-up to his newest vessel’s maiden voyage. His jealousy was simply too much for her to bear. He’s a suffocating person to be around, not only because of his insurmountable envy but also because of his propensity for wrapping his scrawny hands around her neck whenever she steps out of bounds. She wants a divorce, and she’ll have one — just as long as she isn’t involved with another man in the six months following her filing. Luckily for her, she’s never so much as laid eyes on another man. Unluckily for Bruce, his master plan to get her back will inadvertently send the perfect one right into her arms.
Borzage’s seemingly rudimentary drama takes its first major turn when Bruce tries to negate his wife’s petition to separate. He enlists his driver to enter Irene’s room so that a private detective can catch them in the act, which is a flawless plan on paper but not even close to successful in execution because of one small thing: He didn’t anticipate Irene’s reaction. She lets out a scream as Bruce’s driver enters her room, and a passerby — a French waiter named Paul (Charles Boyer) — is obliged to help. He goes to the window, sees Irene in distress, enters her room under the guise of a jewel thief, and saves her from Bruce’s clutches by knocking out the driver and pretending to make her his hostage (in reality, he’s taking her out to eat at the restaurant where he works). In a way, Borzage takes his audience captive as well: Initially disguised as an unassuming story about a couple in the throes of a separation, History Is Made at Night uproots the viewer from one genre and drops them into a yearnful romance.
This might be the first instance of History Is Made at Night switching things up mid-stride, but it’s far from the last: After Irene and Paul’s desirous dinner date, subsequent pieces hop from film noir to grand melodrama to screwball comedy to disaster movie — with Borzage even finding the time to make a few other stops in between. And all in less than 100 minutes. It’s hard to fathom a filmmaker juggling genres like this today, and it’s even more difficult to imagine someone who could still be operating at the top of their game after 90-plus films, but Borzage’s ostensibly unique career wasn’t so novel back then: Contemporaries like John Ford, Michael Curtiz, W.S. Van Dyke, Allan Dwan, and Richard Thorpe were putting out just as many films (if not more). This sort of prolific mastery of the form was the rule, not the exception, during the first few decades of film history. Borzage was one of many who could churn out a masterpiece on a dime.
Given Borzage’s noted admiration of prodigious German director F.W. Murnau, it only makes sense that History Is Made at Night would be packed with all sorts of strikingly beautiful moments that require little to no dialogue at all to resonate. Borzage and his peers had an inimitable knack for utilizing silence in their films, a legacy of their silent-era experience. Longing looks, tearful glances, hopeful stares — it’s astounding the kind of emotion that can be conveyed in a pair of eyes, and Borzage appreciates this fact. It also helps that he had cinematographer David Abel on his team, fresh off a string of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, with uncredited help from Gregg Toland as well. The former is especially revelatory, because it means that Toland was cutting his teeth with Borzage before working with Orson Welles on one of the most gorgeous-looking films ever made, Citizen Kane (1941).
The Criterion Collection’s restoration of History Is Made at Night — their 1,072nd spine and their second Borzage film after Moonrise (1948) — is worth celebrating for the excellent job it does preserving the rich texture of Borzage’s unmissable genre medley, but it’s also worth acknowledging that their update will put the title in front of countless new pairs of eyes. It’s the type of romantic imagery Borzage himself wouldn’t be able to keep from swooning over: viewers welling up at shots of Jean Arthur welling up herself. The takeaway here is that love transcends all — even 80-year gaps between an original theatrical run and a boutique home-video release.
Further Viewing: 7th Heaven (1927), Sunrise (1927), Street Angel (1928), Lucky Star (1929), Bad Girl (1931), Man’s Castle (1933), Love Affair (1939), When Tomorrow Comes (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), Moonrise (1948)