History is Made at Night

History is Made at Night (1937 USA 97 mins)

Prod Co: Walter Wanger Productions Prod: Walter Wanger Dir: Frank Borzage Scr: Graham Baker, Gene Towne Phot: David Abel Ed: Margaret Clancey Art Dir: Alexander Toluboff Mus: Alfred Newman

Cast: Charles Boyer, Jean Arthur, Leo Carrillo, Colin Clive, Ivan Lebedeff, George Meeker

No archive in the world is able to fulfill a request for an authentic photographed image of the sinking of the Titanic. The event occurred in the middle of a moonless night, with no cameras capturing it. Pent-up desires to see such an image surely help stoke the perennial popularity of re-enactments of the sinking on film. The first of these was released to theatres within a month of the sinking on 14 April 1912. The now-considered-lost film Saved From the Titanic (Étienne Arnaud, 1912), starred Dorothy Gibson, an experienced actress who happened to have been a passenger on board during the catastrophe. It was soon followed by a German production: In Nacht und Eis (Mime Misu, 1912). The first Titanic movies of the talking-picture era were also made in Europe: three different versions of Atlantic (E. A. Dupont, 1929) filmed with separate English, French and German casts.

Hollywood stepped aboard the Titanic in the 1930s, initially with Fox Studio’s 1933 adaptation of Noel Coward’s play Cavalcade, which contained a sequence of Margaret Lindsay and John Warburton as honeymooners on the luckless liner, revealed by name only though a life preserver shown in the final shot of the scene. Double Academy Award-winning director Frank Borzage was initially set to make the film, but instead jumped ship to film A Farewell to Arms (1932) for Paramount. Frank Lloyd took the helm for Cavalcade and its own Academy Awards success (1), but a few years later Borzage returned to the Titanic when he directed History is Made at Night for producer Walter Wanger at United Artists. It was in theatres across the country by April 1937, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the famous tragedy.

Of course, History is Made at Night isn’t really about the sinking of the greatest, most luxurious ocean vessel in history. In 1937 it was a contemporarily-set film, its action existing in a universe in which the Hindenburg still soared, as it would until 6 May of that year, and the Titanic has already sunk. Moreover, the film’s ship, named the Princess Irene by Colin Clive’s shipbuilder Bruce Vail after his wife (Jean Arthur), is not the locus or focus of the majority of the film’s action. Its plot (called “preposterously arbitrary” by Pauline Kael in a favorable New Yorker review (2)) pushes Irene, no longer able to endure her loveless marriage to the insanely rich and richly insane Vail, into the arms of an idealised French head waiter posing as a burglar, Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer). Characters cross the Atlantic from Europe to New York and back again, but it’s only in the final reel that the possibility of iceberg collisions and watery graves is introduced.

But as an uncredited second-unit assistant Joshua Logan recounted, screenwriters Gene Towne and Graham Baker were intentionally invoking the 1912 disaster when they introduced the ocean liner deus ex machina into their script. An earlier draft of the script positioned the Bruce Vail character as a jewelry tycoon, and vestiges of this conception remain apparent in the finished film, notably in the form of a pearl necklace significantly worn and shorn by Jean Arthur (3). According to Logan, the writing partners decided to introduce the nautical throughline because they were stuck for an ending. The sinking of a fictitious ship became their solution. Numerous details of the Princess Irene’s undoing were certainly meant to recall popular notions about the Titanic, from the insufficient lifeboats to the performance of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” by shipboard musicians (4). It was in line with contemporaneous hits San Francisco (W. S. Van Dyke, 1936) and In Old Chicago (Henry King, 1937) by severing the strands of a tangled web of character relationships with a sensationally destructive finale, but History is Made at Night differs substantively from those extravaganzas. Its clearly hybridised historical and fictional elements minimise the sense of fatalistic doom that hangs over the characters in those films, and in subsequent, fully-fledged attempts at Titanic mythologising made by Jean Negulesco and James Cameron (5). If it hadn’t been for the prominent featuring of the sinking-ship spectacle in the film’s loose-lipped publicity materials, viewers of History is Made at Night might not have had any inkling that a Titanic-like ordeal was going to befall its characters, until they heard the ominous belching of foghorns spoil Boyer and Arthur’s shipboard recreation of their romantic first night together.

The scene they try to re-enact comes from near the beginning of the film and is one of Borzage’s most celebrated. After their acute meet-cute, Paul takes Irene to his Paris restaurant and manipulates the chef (a comic Italian stereotype portrayed with gusto by Leo Carrillo) and orchestra into remaining after closing to provide a private gourmet dinner and tango. He renames his Kansan conquest “Miss America” – a suitable gesture to a woman whose surname recalls a glowering husband who has also seized her first name for one of his business ventures. He speaks to her through an improvised hand-puppet (6), mouthing questions inappropriate to ask a married woman one has just met, unless one is Charles Boyer or in love. Preferably both. For Irene, one night of romance wipes out a lifetime of frustration. Paul, too, is a changed man after his after-hours adventure with Irene. His chivalrous impulses, which may reflect the lessons many derived from the Titanic’s “women and children first” lore, transform first into intense attraction and eventually into a moral stance both more mature and more loving. Indeed, History is Made at Night, perhaps more strongly than any film Borzage made in the mid-1930s, expresses the director’s fascination for the transformative power of faith in true love.

Endnotes

  1. Lloyd won his first Academy Award for “Best Direction” for Cavalcade, the film also capturing statuettes for “Best Picture” and “Best Art Direction”.
  2. Kael’s review is anthologised in 5001 Nights at the Movies, H. Holt, New York, 1991, p. 335.
  3. Joshua Logan, Josh: My Up and Down, in and out Life, Delacorte Press, New York, 1976. Logan’s memoir devotes several pages of colorful detail to screenwriters Towne and Baker, their work on History is Made at Night in particular. Although he is officially credited as dialogue director, Logan also claims that he worked as assistant second-unit director on the film (p. 88).
  4. Jeffrey Richards describes it as “a precise re-creation of the Titanic disaster in miniature” in his A Night to Remember: The Definitive Titanic Film, I. B. Tauris, London, 2002, p. 16.
  5. Titanic (Jean Negulesco, 1953) and Titanic (James Cameron, 1997).
  6. Viewers familiar with Señor Wences through his appearances on television may recognise Paul’s schtick as belonging to that of the Spanish ventriloquist; Señor Wences was indeed an uncredited contributor to the film, according to the filmography appended in Hervé Dumont’s Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Co., 2006, p. 379.