History Is Made at Night, which Andrew Sarris has called the most romantic title in the history of cinema (and I’m not going to argue with him) is a patchwork quilt genre bender that stands as one of Frank Borzage’s supreme achievements. Its producer Walter Wanger came up with the title, which Borzage loved, and the director began work without a script, filming everything on the fly. Borzage starts the film as a noir-ish society melodrama, switches gracefully to romantic comedy (facilitated by the talents of his gifted, high-strung leading lady, Jean Arthur) and then proceeds to deepen the feelings between Arthur and her leading man Charles Boyer until they reach the highest Borzagian spiritual love. A week before they finished shooting, Wanger arrived on the set and said that the whole thing was going to end with a shipwreck, which resulted in a surprise climax of breathless suspense.
This is a film where the craziness of its work conditions and the blending of styles was taken up by Borzage to stand in for the craziness and exposure of falling in love. There is no sexier or more joyous moment in all of Borzage’s work than the point when Arthur’s Irene, liberated from her psychotic husband (Colin Clive), blithely kicks off her shoes while she dances with Boyer’s Paul, a suave headwaiter who knows the art of love as well as the art of gourmet food. The improbability of the plot serves as a sort of dizzying high, as if they were saying, “This is the movies, and we can do anything.”
A special word should be said for Clive, a tormented man who died shortly after filming. He gives his character’s obsessive jealousy a nasty, hysterical edge, and Borzage, who knew a thing or two about such jealousy, foregrounds Clive’s performance so that the threat to his lovers is both real and lurid. It’s a film that sets up a fearful contrast between Clive’s deep but perverted feelings and the lyrical emotions of Arthur and Boyer. Another filmmaker might have made us see that these two kinds of love are in some ways similar, but Borzage won’t traffic in nuances if they happen to lead to cynicism.
The unique quality of History Is Made at Night is its ability to turn on a dime, flipping from one extreme to another so that the extremes intensify each other—it’s as if Borzage forced the Melodrama and the Romantic Comedy into a room and ordered them to make love. The film’s seesaw effects are best exemplified by the use of an unforgettable character called Coco. Whenever Boyer wants to say something to Arthur but is too embarrassed to speak, he draws a little face on his hand, calls it “Coco,” and lets Coco do the dirty work. Coco can be pretty outrageous: toward the end of the film, when the lovers are really in trouble, she pierces their desperate mood with her nonsense, and the tragic vibe lightens up into anarchic comedy. But Borzage uses this comic explosion to keep us off balance, unguarded, making us laugh so that when the lovers are reminded of their problems, we feel their pain much more deeply. Borzage uses the best things about several genres here in order to make us feel their properties more intensely, playing the audience like a piano, or a particularly inspired lover.