HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937)


Jean Arthur is the wonderful comedienne of the 1930’s and 40’s who always played strong women who knew what they wanted and would go after it (including men). She’s one of a series of actresses who played women who seem to come out of George Bernard Shaw’s idea of the Super Woman, the distaff side of the Super Man. For Shaw, these women may not be the equal of Super Men, but they were superior to all other men and have the same characteristics that the men did. Their main advantage is that they were usually more attuned to who would be the best person to have a relationship with; they tended to know when the life force of the universe had brought her the perfect mate and nothing was going to stop her from fulfilling her destiny. Her 19367 film, History is Made at Night, has a high reputation. I have no idea why. It’s a perfectly silly story about a man, Colin Clive, so jealous of his wife, Jean Arthur, he drives her to divorce. But he can’t let go, so when she’s in London waiting out the grace period after the divorce has been granted, he decides to make one final stab at getting her back. According to British law, if the wife has sex with another man during this grace period, the divorce is null and void, so Clive (get this) pays his chauffer to rape her and claim that the sex was consensual. Actually, it’s such an unusual idea for a story, that there is something kind of fascinating about it. Then Charles Boyer, at his romantic Frenchiest, is putting a client to bed (he’s the greatest headwaiter in London and one of his patrons got a bit too drunk) in the hotel room next door. He stops the chauffer and rescues Arthur and the two fall in love. But Clive then kills the chauffer in Arthur’s hotel room and blames Boyer (though he doesn’t know who Boyer is and therefore, neither do the police). The plot just gets more and more ridiculous after this. At the same time, it is perhaps possible that something this preposterous could work, but the main problem is Arthur. Clive is very good at channeling his neurotic acting technique from his Frankenstein films and Boyer is perfectly fine. But Arthur seems hopelessly miscast. She goes around with the same look on her face, a pained smile. In her comedies, this reaction is often funny, but in this takes-itself-too-seriously-drama, it just looks…pained. She’s just the wrong actress for the job. Director Frank Borzage (of Seventh Heaven) is known for his ability to make romantic gold out of the silliest dross, but here, there wasn’t a lot he could do. The whole thing ends with Boyer and Arthur on an ocean liner heading back to London and the ship getting struck by an iceberg in a semi-Titanic like finale. This is actually a pretty exciting sequence and the highlight of the film. While the lovers took the boat to Europe, Clive took the Hindenburg. However, the Hindenburg never made this trip back to the continent because it exploded on May 6, 1937. The movie was released on March 5, two months earlier, so the filmmakers couldn’t have known. The main screenwriters, C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne, have done better (Mary Burns, Fugitive and They Only Live Once).

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