Relegated by Andrew Sarris to “The Far Side Of Paradise,” Frank Borzage has long occupied an uneasy place in the film canon—claimed by some as an old Hollywood master, an emotionally volatile fellow traveler to Capra and Fuller, but generally appraised as a cult item. This (along with a thousand other bullet points) makes Armond White angry: “Film critics couldn’t care less about Frank Borzage,” he told Steven Boone last year. “They prefer to make reference to cynical filmmakers, less talented filmmakers, like Billy Wilder, for instance.”
So fine, maybe I’m cynical. History Is Made at Night is my first encounter with Borzage; my response, generally, is that it’s easy enough to see why he has ardent admirers, but also why he’ll never have more than a relative handful of those.
Borzage’s specialty, per reputation, is the uneasy juxtaposition of the strongest of all emotions—farce and tragedy cheek-by-jowl, seemingly unaware of their proximity. History is never boring, though I wasn’t on the edge of my seat for the plot, but rather to see what tonal swing would happen next. I’d already been unmanned discovering within five minutes that the Jean Arthur co-headlining the film wasn’t the fast-talking, brash dame of Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith and general screwball repute: this Arthur is meek and oppressed, inarticulate in the extreme. “All I seem to be able to say is ’Oh’” she tells Charles Boyer, still in awe of her just-appeared protector—and while you could get a whole academic paper out of the unconscious orgasmic implications, it wouldn’t be entirely flippant or overreaching. The title is swooningly romantic, and so is the film—but when you’ve got an experienced French lover pursuing a presumably naïve Midwestern girl whose insanely jealous husband (Colin Clive) suspects her of having an affair even before it’s true, you could rewrite the film as the sexual liberation of a virginal American by a sensuous Gaul, opposed by the stereotypically repressed fury of a Brit.
Rote sociological-sexual readings aside, History survives not by plot, but incident, schizophrenically so. “It’s a pity there’s no laboratory device for testing tensile strength, base load and specific gravity of motion pictures,” Frank S. Nugent complained in the New York Times upon the film’s original release. “If there were, the chances are that this one would be split at several seams, torn to shreds and returned to its maker tagged ’defective.’ ... it is nothing short of multidextrous: farce with one hand, melodrama with the next, comedy with a third, tragedy a fourth. We have no idea what the average would be.”
I don’t either. History is Romantic—love triumphs over geography, the laws of coincidence, even a near Titanic-level disaster. I can’t find that entirely satisfying, and I have no idea why that kind of naïve formulation is automatically positive: Love—inarticulate, irrational, based off little more than champagne and one magical night of lobster and dancing—would be better served by the kind of arduous, near-fatal attacks launched upon Arthur’s paramours in Capra, or, alternately, by the skeptical attitude of, say, Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, where love can’t survive without financial stability. (Like today’s rom-coms, History conflates glittering romance and financial high-stepping without thinking twice, a Depression-era convention accepted to this day.)
But it’s something to see, at least once. Intensity of feeling may be what brings the fans in, but I preferred the droll sub-plot/tangent that swallows the film whole for 10 minutes: Boyer and his Italian chef buddy (Leo Carrillo, as fine a sputterer of cliche Italian phrases as any) arrive in New York with the plan of opening the city’s most successful restaurant—not hard, as the first place they step into is a disaster of bland bouillon and worse service. Quiet, civilized Europeans civilize brash, tasteless Americans: now that’s funny. The rest, I fear, I may never understand.