Tuesday, September 22, 2015

History is Made at Night (1937) A Film by Frank Borzage

Frank Borzage's History is Made at Night bounces around—no, jolts—between two diametrically opposed tonal/emotional realms treated to differing stylistic registers: first, the familiar Borzagean realm of love and bliss, and second, the world of obsession, wealth and power, here standing in for any number of frictional forces (others include war and poverty) propped up against love’s attainment throughout his body of work. In the former, Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur, through the sheer indomitability of their enchantment with one another, seem to bend reality to meet their desires. They can singlehandedly reopen a restaurant after hours, cross a bustling New York City street without so much as flinching at the braking and honking automobiles, and survive a surefire shipwreck in the Antarctic. In this realm, Borzage indulges romantic orchestral music and sweeping tracking shots (one particularly virtuosic one glides with the newly love-drunk Boyer through the maze-like dining room of his restaurant and into the elaborate kitchen in the back). The lovers are often joined in frame here, the space they mutually occupy made whole.

In Borzage’s contrasting tonal register, the opposite is true. Scenes playing out in single rooms get chopped up into 5, 7, 10 angles, all isolating and/or organizing characters into stiff geometric patterns—a common one being a triangle that shows two suited men bearing down on a nervous Arthur. Borzage uses mirrors to further fragment space; there’s even a recurring motif of the heroine’s back to the camera, whereby we only glimpse her expression through a reflection. In the scenes with Boyer, hands are friendly anthropomorphized puppets, but here they become disembodied strangling instruments, with an unnerving Colin Clive reflexively finding his paws around his wife’s throat. And, throughout all this, there are no lilting strings to soften the mood, only a static room tone.

The function of the film’s increasingly ludicrous plot—which involves speedy transcontinental relocation, nightlife entrepreneurship, a murder case, and a long-distance cruise—is to have the fragmentary unease encroach upon the fairy-tale simplicity until the worlds collide, the point being to illustrate love’s ability to conquer even the most farfetched and wicked of impositions. It sounds like I’m describing any Borzage movie, and on the surface I am, but it’s the elegance with which the director stages this friction and eventual collision that makes History is Made at Night such a lucid and transformative expression of his unwavering worldview.

In what I’d hold to be the most ingenious display of Borzage’s subtlety in UCLA’s retrospective (of the films I witnessed, at least), the two realms that vie for supremacy within the film’s structure become translated as sound. The movie’s operatic final act finds Boyer and Arthur, unbeknownst to them in their attempt to escape, boarding an ocean liner actually owned by Clive, who has covertly ordered his captains to steer the ship through a treacherous pass—a suicide mission, essentially. This new route triggers a bellowing foghorn, which then becomes the rhythmic backdrop for the couple’s romantic evening in the cabin. When Boyer throws on a vinyl of classical music to class up his dinner date, the music doesn’t drown out the menacing moan; rather, the two accompaniments get overlaid awkwardly, the scene suddenly playing like an archetypal melodramatic vignette that’s being perversely tinkered with by some disapproving third party. It’s the perfect distillation of the film, enacted on the most of cunning of levels.

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