Monday, March 21, 2011
History is Made at Night - 1937
We film bloggers can easily ignore movies we don’t like, but I’ve been avoiding this one because I like it so much. Sometimes you destroy something mysterious and lovely when you look behind the curtain. But, ever since this post from our friend Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and the comments, (Laura blogs on this film here.) I’ve been brooding over blogging about this movie. Brooding. Brooding some more.
I think the deciding factor was when TCM yanked “The Public Menace” that was supposed to be on last night and changed their schedule. It put me over the edge. Now you’re going to get “History is Made at Night”, ripped to shreds. Muwaahaaahaa!
But first, the obligatory warning. There will be spoilers. I am going to discuss every frame of this movie (well, almost), for two reasons: one, I am by nature a little too analytical (stop snickering). Put a steak dinner in front of me, and I will analyze it, draw graphs, and make comparisons to Yeats’ poems and the history of Thailand, with little known facts about the modern combustible engine.
The second reason is because it occurred to me, after much brooding, as I have already mentioned, that the manner in which the plot is tossed at us is a key factor in why this movie, with such an improbable plot, seems to work.
Right, then. Do not go beyond this point if you do not want spoilers.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION!
And one more…
YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!
That ought to be enough warning for anybody. Oh, one other thing: this might take a while, so go to the bathroom now.
Ready? You by the windows, draw the blinds.
“History is Made at Night”, an unusual title for an unusual film, features Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur. Their chemistry in this film is something remarkable, and it is an oft-repeated story that a visitor to the set wondered if they were having an affair off camera because their work in this film was so intimate. Even more remarkable to this and other visitors was the professional manner of the two stars when the cameras were not rolling. This demonstrated that not only were they not having an affair; they were two of the most empathetic actors of that period. They became who they were playing and for those moments, seemed to shut out everything else.
It is one of the most romantic movies ever made, and much is credited to director Frank Borzage’s “love conquers all” canon. Something else, though, happens in the direction of this movie that keeps us interested, and believing, in the sometimes unbelievable events. Another director, another cast in this film might easily make us holler, “Oh, PUL-L-E-E-ZZE!” when we are asked to accept what is happening. Somehow, the lustrous magic of this film pulls us along. I think the intimacy of this movie reaches the audience on a personal level.
How it does that is by keeping us completely in the dark.
That’s unusual. The normal routine in films, especially of that period, is to set us up for every scene. For instance, take the old gag about somebody slipping on a banana peel. We see the character eating a banana. We know that he is going to drop the peel on the ground. After that, someone will come along and slip. Before the action ever happens, we know what is going to happen and our enjoyment of the gag is based on, not surprise (ironically), but on being clued in beforehand.
Comedies, dramas, horror movies (think of the scary music that precedes the attack), this foreshadowing happens in most films to help the audience accept what is being told to them -- though not always as obvious as the banana gag. And an abundance of plot exposition. “History is Made at Night” takes the opposite track and makes the audience experience without any warning what the characters are facing, and makes the audience face it at the same time.
the remark by Nick Pinkerton who notes: "to watch her dance with Boyer is to witness a woman falling in love in real time." I love that quote, it’s a great observation. On one level, this is a tribute to Jean Arthur’s charming power on screen, but on another level it is a tribute to Frank Borzage’s delicacy and how much he holds back, giving us a little at a time.
He gives us so little at a time that we are never sure if this is a melodrama, a romantic comedy, a suspense film…and then turns it into one of the very first “disaster movies”. Such sleight of hand is astounding. It almost seems as if they are all making this up as they go along, (and to some extent probably were) yet it is carefully orchestrated.
Headlines about the split between Clive and his wife.
That’s all the set up we get. From here on, we’re on our own.
Keep together. Hold hands.
Cut to Charles Boyer chattering glibly to an unconscious man in a darkened room. Boyer wears a dark overcoat, with a Fedora low over his eyes. He looks like Lamont Cranston as “The Shadow”. Is he a cat burglar, robbing this defenseless man? Sounds from the room next door, Jean Arthur pleading. Boyer watches from the terrace as Michael the Chauffeur takes liberties. M. Boyer socks him on the jaw and knocks him cold, then shoots a dismissive glance at Jean, surveys the room, and turns off the lights.
Cut to a cab ride, where Jean, shell shocked and rigid with fear, eyes Boyer, who seems to sneer with arrogance. He leans over her, to place her pearls around her neck, and then ties up the rest of her jewels like a little package in his handkerchief, dropping them in her lap.
Hold the phone. He’s not a thief or kidnapper.
The sneer is a secret smile because he knows something she does not, and playfully confesses that he was putting a drunk friend to sleep in the next room when he heard the commotion. He pretended to be a thief to get her out of there and not compromise her any further in front of her jealous husband.
She is bowled over by this, and begins to chill out, not easy after what she’s been through.
Wait a minute. This isn’t a melodrama; it’s a romantic comedy.
Boyer playfully draws a face on his hand, calls his “girlfriend” Coco, and talks to Jean about the events of the evening in much the same way a child psychologist would use crayons and paper with a traumatized child. It reminds you of Señor Wences, doesn’t it? That’s because it is Señor Wences, in the close-ups and his voice. The famed Spanish ventriloquist was wowing them in the mid 1930s at New York’s Club Chico, and evidently got tagged to help with animating “Coco”.
“I hate men. Don’t you?” Coco wants to know why Jean got married, why her husband did that terrible thing to her.
Jean loosens up, shares a little girl talk with Boyer’s hand, and tells Coco to get Boyer to ask her to dance. In a moment, with her fur coat draped modestly around her shoulders, Jean and her hero are taking soft, tiny steps to a quiet tango. She keeps tripping on her slippers. At first, he replaces her shoe like the prince in Cinderella. They talk while they are dancing.
“Would it help if you told me about it?” he asks her and here is where we begin to see her falling in love a little with him, because we are, too. He does not sweep her off her feet or romance her in the manner of the ardent French lover. With exquisite gentleness, he invites her to only to trust him in a leisurely scene that makes no demands on her, and we watch her brittle nerves disappear like a tense body being massaged.
Colin Clive plays it sinister in this role. Anyone might play the jealous husband with a kind of mustache-twirling “mellerdrammer” villain, but he is like a ticking time bomb, controlled and calculating. This is what makes him really frightening. He is an intelligent lunatic. He knows that Michael was still unconscious when Jean and Boyer left. If Michael were dead, Boyer would be arrested for killing him in the fight.
Clive smashes Michael’s skull.
Whoa. We were wrong. It’s not a romantic comedy. It’s a suspense story. Colin’s going after Jean, and cops will soon be after Boyer.
Cut to Colin Clive, calmly reporting the murder of Michael the Chauffeur to the police.
They look as if they are comforting each other, and we see Boyer is falling in love with her as well. It is now morning. They make plans to see each other tomorrow afternoon.
Boyer brings Jean back to her hotel room, and she skips happily, a far cry from the thoroughly demoralized woman we saw earlier. Uh-oh. In her room are the cops, and Colin Clive pretending to be so worried about her.
When the cops leave, Clive cuts the phony worried husband act and accuses her of taking Boyer as a lover.
“I ought to kill you for this!”
“Why don’t you? Then I’d never have to see you again.” It is a flat response, not at all hysterical, but the terse reply of someone who has borne too long an abusive marriage.
But Clive holds the whip hand. She knows it. He will turn in Boyer if she doesn’t come back to him. She agrees, and they sail for New York.
Are you still with me? Good. Please, no flash photography on this tour.
Oh, he OWNS this joint. That’s why he brought Jean here and why he was so easily able to make the chef and musicians stay all night.
He tells Leo Carrillo he is in love with Jean and he will marry her.
“You gonna marry with that silly girl who danced with the naked feet?” Leo cannot believe it. The glamorous Jean is not good enough for Boyer.
“You act like a love-sick schoolboy instead of the greatest head waiter in Europe.”
The greatest HEAD WAITER in Europe? Our hero is just a waiter?
We see him next greet the dinner crowd, lighting the cigarettes of patrons, making things run smoothly with an eye for detail and a deferential manner. But something else -- we see he is not cloying or insincere in his attentions to the customers. He is no sycophant who turns tricks for tips. He is elegant and dignified, and controls the dining room like a captain controls his ship. He placates a fussy lady and we see he enjoys making things all right again, and perhaps this is part of his love for Jean. He gets to be the hero by making things all right again, and the love and gratitude in her eyes is bigger than any tips he’s ever gotten.
The drunk he put to bed the night before comes in with a hangover, and starts talking about the cops and some murder that happened in the next room, but Boyer gets distracted by other customers and does not hear him. The suspense makes us grind our teeth.
He goes to meet Jean at the appointment time, but she is not there. He learns from a headline (thank heavens for headlines, they tell us everything, and so quickly), that she is the wife of this great shipping magnate, and she is sailing with him to America that day.
Colin Clive enters the cabin, ready for romance as he slinks his arm around her neck more like a strangler than a lover, and she withdraws from him. Instantly his jealousy spikes again and he taunts her about her Boyer. He asks what she would give to be alone on the sea with Boyer now, instead of with him.
He threatens to kill her and knocks her to the ground, but she revives with that cold determination to leave him again.
They don’t know where to find Jean, since she has left her husband. It’s a big town.
Cut to Colin Clive. He knows where Jean is, and where she works now as a dressmaker’s model.
Who will get to her first?
Cut to Boyer and Leo brooding in a New York café. In one of the most improbable, but entertaining subplots of this movie, Boyer notes the crappy service in this café and the lousy food. He decides that he and Leo must use the weapons available to them to lure Jean out. They will take jobs in this café and turn it into one of the best run night spots in New York, where everyone…including Jean, will want to be.
And the comedy has returned to the script, except for one poignant moment. He leaves one table reserved for Jean. No one else may sit there.
Cut to the dress shop where Jean models clothes for rich customers. A hired goon tells Jean that her husband wants a meeting. The murderer of Michael the Chauffeur was caught by the Paris police. Jean thinks, of course, that he’s referring to Boyer. Panicked, she meets with her husband in his New York office where there is a large painting of her. He tells her he is going to hang it in the royal suite of The Princess Irene.
Colin Clive tells her that if she comes back to him, they will go to Paris together and testify on Boyer’s behalf to get him free. She agrees. They will fly back on the Hindenburg tonight.
Yeah, that Hindenburg.
“History is Made at Night” was released March 5, 1937, when The Hindenburg was to start her second year of commercial trans-Atlantic flights. Two months after this film was released, on May 6, 1937, The Hindenburg exploded. For more on that event, have a look at this previous post.
One wonders if the film was altered in any way after the disaster to omit reference the doomed airship, or pulled from the market. I don’t know. Colin Clive, it could be noted here, faced his own private disaster. His wan, strained appearance in this, his last film, might indicate his struggle with tuberculosis and chronic alcoholism. Mr. Clive died three months after the film was released, in June 1937.
For the moment in our film, melodrama has morphed back into comedy…no, wait, tragedy…no, wait…I don’t know…when Colin Clive takes Jean out for supper on their last night in New York. Of course, he takes her to that popular place where Charles Boyer works.
Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy.
But, wait, it’s a comedy again when Jean rides in the cab with Colin Clive after dinner and rips up her Hindenburg ticket into tiny little pieces. She jumps out and runs back to the café.
Like Bogey, Boyer is choking on his pain and sarcastically replies, “Madame forgets herself. I am only a waiter.”
She asks him to trust her, and gets Coco to ask him to dance. Soon, we are back to romantic comedy again, and they head to the kitchen for scrambled eggs and pretend to be husband and wife.
Another morning, like that morning after in Paris, when the world wakes up and the dangers of the night are past. She wears his large overcoat to cover her evening gown. She reluctantly breaks it to him that they cannot return to Paris because he is wanted there for murder.
Boyer is shocked. He had no idea he’d hit Michael the Chauffeur that hard, and is even more appalled that another man is being held for the crime.
They walk the streets talking of fleeing to Tahiti or facing the music in Paris, while the New York rear screen projection slips by them.
Cut to the moonlight on board ship, and our two lovers standing at the rail. Where are they headed? The safety of the south Pacific? (First class ticket to Tahiti is $725, it says in the travel bureau window.)
The camera pans to the clock on the wall with the ship’s name. The Princess Irene. They’re going to Paris to see this through.
Now it’s a race against time, for if they are not able to convince the authorities of Boyer’s part in the murder, perhaps have the charges reduced to accidental death or manslaughter, he will not avoid the guillotine.
It’s a suspense movie again.
Cut to Colin Clive in his Paris office. Surrounded by employees, legal retainers and advisors, and newspapers, he learns that Boyer and his wife are returning to testify. Their romance makes the front page.
Avoiding safety procedures to make the boss happy and improve the bottom line is not something new or unbelievable, despite the captain’s willingness to put his passengers at risk and Clive’s frothing at the mouth. It happens too often. This is one improbable scene in the film that is not so improbable.
The captain passes along the orders to a group of surprised and disgusted officers.
Hold the phone. This has now become a disaster movie, and I think possibly the first of its kind (maybe somebody can correct me on this).
A. Grilled cheese sandwiches.
B. Opens a can of ravioli.
C. Orders take-out pizza.
D. Lobster Cardinal, Salade Chiffonnade, and Pink Cap ’21.
Then eating the food Leo has cooked for them, Boyer realizes his pal must be on board ship. He goes to find him.
Jean is lying unconscious on the floor of her cabin, knocked there by the force of the collision. Boyer gets Leo to safety in one of the lifeboats, and then goes back for Jean.
Elderly couples say goodbye to each other, children are separated from parents. Boyer gets Jean to a lifeboat, but she won’t stay. She goes back to him.
All the women are being evacuated to lifeboats. She will stay and die with him.
Remember when Colin Clive asked what she would give to be alone with Boyer on a ship at sea, and she responds, “My soul”? She gives her life.
Does anybody have a hanky I can use? No, not if you’ve already blown your nose on it. Oh, forget it.
Cut to Colin Clive listening to the radio reports of the tragedy. The ship’s power is cut off and no rescue vessels are close. Likely, the ship has gone down.
His two greatest passions: love and jealously, now have no object of obsession since both Boyer and Jean are evidently dead. He writes a suicide note confession he killed Michael the Chauffeur, and since he knows the investigation of the ship sinking will lead to jail time for him, he goes off screen and shoots himself. There is a close-up on the portrait of Jean, the sound of a shot, and a drifting wisp of gun smoke.
Cut back to the ship, listing in the water, slipping slowly. Doomed men wander on deck.
If you ever hear that on a ship, it’s not a good sign.
Cut back to Jean and Boyer, who have a few more minutes to talk about when they fell in love. They are trying to commit everything to memory because there is so little time.
Then an announcement from a crew member. The forward bulkhead doors seem to be holding. The ship will not sink. They will have time to wait it out until help arrives.
Stunned disbelief at first, then weak, hysterical cries of joy. Some of them are fairly crazed with relief.
What is Director Borzage’s message in this? True love conquers all? True love and good strong bulkhead doors, maybe.
It’s a surprising little movie simply for the way Borzage keeps playing with our assumptions and never lets us get too comfortable. I don’t think the improbability of some of the events is necessarily a weakness of this film, though I do think our final look at Boyer and Jean could be a little stronger, with a more powerful realization that time is no longer their enemy, and that their own courage brought them safely home as much as twist of fate or the screenwriter’s whim.
And I like to think Coco gave up her seat on the lifeboat, too, and stayed with Boyer like Jean did.
A final note: we commented in this earlier post on “Shane” where Jean Arthur’s male leads were often much younger than she. In “History is Made at Night”, all her co-stars, Charles Boyer, Colin Clive, and Leo Carrillo were older than she by a few months to a few years. I don’t think that ever happened again for the remainder of her career.