To fall deeply in love means to take a risk, and no romantic movie is riskier than History Is Made at Night (1937). Producer Walter Wanger came up with the very grand and suggestive title, but he had only two pages of script to show Frank Borzage when he approached him to direct in October 1936. “It’s a beautiful title, it’s an intriguing title,” Borzage wrote to Wanger. “But where’s the story?” A team of writers got to work with Wanger and Borzage, but only fifty-two pages of the screenplay were done by the time they had to start shooting, which meant that this was a movie in which the plunge inherent in falling in love would be reflected in the production itself. There is a feeling of spontaneity and freedom in History Is Made at Night that speaks to the confidence of both the classic Hollywood studio system and Borzage’s own notion of the invincibility of romance.
Borzage had been making pictures for over twenty years when he took on this project, and had handled all sorts of subject matter, but he is remembered still for the emotional charge of his romances. From his earliest work in the teens to his silent features with Janet Gaynor in the twenties and his sound films with Margaret Sullavan in the thirties, Borzage was devoted to the idea of love that transcends time and space. The quintessential Borzage coupling involves a very tall, innocent man, played variously by Charles Farrell, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart, paired with a smaller and fragile-seeming woman like Gaynor or Sullavan, who sensually cradles and physically protects her lover in a world they make of their own. History Is Made at Night forgoes the emotionally potent physical contrast between Borzage lovers and delves instead into contrasts of behavior, riding high on an air of try-and-stop-us improbability and that most romantic of notions: opposites attract.
No two performers could seem more opposite at first glance than the stars of this film, the very American Jean Arthur and the very French Charles Boyer. It was well known in Hollywood that Arthur was nervous about everything, so plagued by stage fright and indecision that director Frank Capra, who worked with her several times, thought that she probably vomited before and after her scenes. “Those weren’t butterflies in her stomach,” Capra wrote in his memoirs. “They were wasps.” By contrast, Boyer was noted for keeping his cool under all circumstances. “If you were in a group of people and saw an atomic bomb falling down on you, Charles Boyer would be the one not to panic,” said director John Cromwell. Observing Boyer and Arthur on the set of History Is Made at Night, Cromwell recalled that they were all business, which was why he was surprised when he saw their delectable chemistry on-screen. “You’d suspect he had something going on the side with her, but then you’d have to say, no, not Charles Boyer, and definitely not with Jean Arthur,” Cromwell said.
Arthur and Boyer did have some crucial similarities: they were both around the same age, and, as children, they had both been somewhat antisocial and very bookish. Arthur’s head was often in the clouds, for she was an idealist who was uneasy with life and found some relief only in make-believe. Boyer was far more worldly, and he was at his best when reacting with pleasure to a complicated, even difficult, woman. Arthur was hopeful and Boyer was fatalistic. Her inimitably vacillating speaking voice could go either chipmunk high or huskily low, while he spoke in a velvety croak. She was scared of her own shadow, while he had seen it all and was beyond being fazed, though not beyond being touched by innocence. They both approached film acting like children at play, which is what made them so ideally suited to embody Borzage’s own scorn for the outside world.
Toward the end of History Is Made at Night, Boyer’s Paul tells Arthur’s Irene the exact moment that he fell for her, when she kept saying “Oh” in the back of a car and then self-consciously called attention to it. “All I can seem to say is ‘Oh,’” Irene finally remarks, slightly helplessly. She is exhibiting the sort of behavior here that could be perceived as awkward or unattractive to a less confident man, but it’s exactly this sweet dithering that makes Paul fall in love with her. In other words, this is the romance we are all seeking: to be loved for our foibles, not in spite of them.
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