August 27 at Doc Films: “History is Made at Night”

The story of a transcontinental love triangle set aboard decadent ocean liners from a past era, History is Made at Night (1937), showing at Doc Films on Wednesday, August 27, features a rather convoluted plot, but with just enough charm and romance to save itself from ultimately crashing headfirst to its own Titanic-like doom.

To kick off this triangle, Irene Vail, the wife of shipping magnate Bruce Vail, decides to divorce her husband after his jealous accusations that she is having an affair with another man. While she isn’t at the time, Bruce’s attempts at framing her in Paris with their chauffeur, Michael, only drive her into the arms of a head-waiter named Paul Dumond, who rescues her from Michael’s clutches and takes her for food and dancing at his restaurant.

When Irene returns the next morning, she discovers Michael has been killed, and Bruce, wise to what happened with Paul, threatens to track him down and expose him as the killer if Irene doesn’t return to New York with him. Stuck with a complicated choice, Irene agrees, leaving Paul without giving him a proper explanation. Reasonably confused, Paul and his friend, the great head chef Cesare, follow to New York in hopes of luring Irene through establishing their own high society restaurant. It eventually works, and Paul and Irene are reunited – but not before a disastrous trip across the ocean on Bruce’s new ship, the SS Princess Irene, threatens their perfect romance.

Jean Arthur, playing the part of Irene, is primarily thought of as a screwball comedy actress, but this film gives her the chance to stretch out into a slightly more serious, romantic role. Unfortunately, it ends up being the case that her performance actually could have benefited from her light-hearted background. Instead, Irene ends up wildly either too saccharine or too melodramatic, depending on the moment. There’s no middle ground, effectively destroying the possibility that she could be a real person.

Luckily, Charles Boyer picks up the slack as the ever-so-charming Paul. Whether he’s bantering with Irene or Cesare – played by Leo Carillo, who has a knack for stealing scenes as a comedic Greek chorus, of sorts – or running around the New York restaurant trying desperately to transform it into a place for respectable diners, it’s not hard to see how anyone could fall so completely under his influence in just one night.

What’s more, Colin Clive, that veteran Dr. Frankenstein from the early Universal films, delivers a delightfully sinister performance as the conniving Bruce. The very fabric of the film seems to love to play up his evilness, casting shadows upon his high cheekbones even in the most brightly lit settings. The pinnacle of this effect, the night of Michael’s death immediately after a tense interview by Bruce, is straight out of a horror film, as if Dr. Frankenstein lived once more on the screen.

Controlling these aspects of cinematography is Gregg Toland, later better known for his groundbreaking work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane in 1941. However, even in History is Made at Night is evidence of the carefully composed visual style that would characterize Kane. In particular, the most striking shot in the entire movie comes during a slow move into a portrait of Irene, the camera lingering on her frozen expression, as a major dramatic moment sounds off-screen.

One final, small entertainment when watching the film is thinking about the now-history that had yet to happen for everyone making it. Sure, the fateful iceberg crash calls to mind the great tragedy that beset the Titanic in 1912 (a connection the film itself explicitly mentions), but there’s also the alternative method that Bruce and Irene almost take together to France: the Hindenberg airship.

With the knowledge that only two months after History is Made at Night opened in theaters the Hindenberg made its own famous crash, one can’t help but consider that a similar tragedy could have affected Bruce and Irene’s trip had Paul not interfered. It seems that no matter what choice she made, Irene was always potentially in danger.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.