"Is it something like love?"
"It is everything like love."
No one in a Hollywood movie has cried in such agony as Charles Boyer does at the end of Frank Borzage's History is Made at Night (1937). Not until Tippi Hedron in The Birds, or perhaps Jimmy Stewart in some of his traumatic films with Anthony Mann do we find someone in Hollywood expressing so much pain. But that kind of agony is of a personal, inward driven pain—and perhaps something let loose after the Second World War—whereas Boyer in Borzage utters a cry of selfless pain. It is the pain of seeing love choose its own doom by committing itself fully to the destructive bliss of being together forever. In Borzage, as lovers unite, the world falls away; and for Boyer, in this most tragic of films, as lovers unite, the world sinks around them.
Yes—this is Borzage, the one man in Hollywood who really took love seriously, and when you watch his films you know it. History is Made at Night, one of Borzage's masterpieces, with remarkable self-awareness expresses a pathology of love. Jean Arthur, married to a psychotically jealous millionaire (marvelously played by Colin Clive as one of the classical era's most disturbingly believable villains), falls for Boyer, and within this triangle we see two great kinds of love, both obsessive: the transcendental which will sacrifice itself for the love, and the destructive, which will sacrifice anything else for that love.
So we see Clive's hands embrace Arthur's neck in a gesture as intimate as anything Borzage the fleshy, master erotic has ever directed, except it suggests only murder; and the gesture is repeated immediately before the first of the film's several devastating sacrifices, when Boyer caresses Arthur's jaw, fondly imagining what she looked like as a child. Would you send a ship filled with thousands to the bottom of the sea for the sake of your love, or could you rather send yourself to the bottom of the sea for the life of a single, beloved soul? This is what is at stake in History is Made at Night, and really, could anything more important be asked by a film? Borzage, rightly, is the greatest romantic of the cinema.
*** History is Made at Night plays at the Film Society of Lincoln Center series Charles Boyer and the Art of Seduction.