charles-boyer

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Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in publicity photos for Love Affair  (Leo McCarey, 1939)

Love Affair was remade very successfully almost 20 years later as An Affair to Remember with the same director and starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. And it was remade again with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in 1994 with its original title replaced.

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Lubitsch’s last completed film, and an absolute masterpiece, in which Charles Boyer gives a delectable and brilliant performance, as does Jennifer Jones as the object of his affections. That Lubitsch died within a year after this final work is palpably tragic as you can see how young and energetic and how on-the-mark he remained to the end. An unalloyed pleasure is Cluny Brown, among his least-known pictures, it is also among his finest.Peter Bogdanovich

The Lovers: HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937) by R. Emmet Sweeney

HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937) was made under impossible circumstances. It started shooting with half of a script, requiring much of it to be improvised – including the last act’s sinking ship, which the producer conceived during the final week of filming. And yet it is one of the most seductively romantic dramas ever produced in Hollywood, with director Frank Borzage and stars Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer conjuring emotions of such intensity they cut through the absurdity of the plot machinations. Andrew Sarris wrote it was a “profound expression of Borzage’s commitment to love over probability.” HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT has never been out on DVD in the United States, but it is now streaming on the Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.

“It would be a relief for me to get away from doing these FLIRTATION WALKs and doing the same story in three different Academies. I’d like to take a crack at something different!” Borzage was getting tired of the enlistment musical comedies Warner Bros. kept assigning him to (like FLIRTATION WALK [‘34] and SHIPMATES FOREVER [‘35]), so he was eager for his loan-out to Walter Wanger at United Artists for HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT. Wanger was in the Samuel Goldwyn mode, a producer of “quality” whose films also made money. This is why United Artists signed him away from Paramount.

Wanger’s first film with United Artists was Fritz Lang’s YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (‘37). HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT would follow using most of the same crew, including screenwriters Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker, an infamously successful duo whose vulgar behind-the-scenes antics, like using toilet paper as note cards, became the subject of the James Cagney-Pat O’Brien comedy BOY MEETS GIRL (‘38). This time, however, their much-vaunted speed wasn’t fast enough. When HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT started shooting, only 52-pages (about half), of the script had been completed. The actors and sets had already been contracted and reserved, so there couldn’t be any delays. So, once they pushed past the original pages, Towne and Baker would submit new pages each morning, which Borzage and his cast and crew would work with and improvise around as they saw fit.

The spine of the story concerns a simple love triangle between bored wife Irene Vail (Jean Arthur), her jealous shipbuilding husband Bruce (Colin Clive, who gives a trembling, open nerved performance – he was a severe alcoholic and would die soon after filming from tuberculosis) and the debonair head waiter Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer) who sweeps Irene off her feet. Irene is fed up with Bruce’s monstrous jealousies, and is eager for him to sign divorce papers. Bruce refuses to yield and instead concocts a frame-up job in which Irene will be caught in flagrante with Bruce’s driver. Using those pictures as leverage, Bruce hopes it will get Irene to back off the divorce. Nothing goes as planned, for Paul Dumond walks by and inserts himself into the proceedings, knocking down the driver and pretending to be a jewelry thief to spirit Irene out of the room. This bit of underhanded gallantry gets Irene all flustered, and after he reveals his true identity as a non-thief, her multi-octave “oh!” implies a flustered interest. She agrees to have a late-night dinner with him at the Chateau Bleu.

It is a magical sequence that seems tossed off while watching but reveals a delicate and intricate design. Boyer plays Paul as a temporary big shot, convincing the chef Cesare (played with jocular verve by Leo Carrillo) with flattery to keep the restaurant open, and convincing the band (with champagne) to keep playing. His flirtatious approach is one of misdirection. He first introduced himself as a thief, which he already recanted. Here he pretends to be a bigwig, when in fact he is a head waiter at this very restaurant. He will reveal that later, for now he continues the tactic – he tells Irene that he lives with a woman and she gets visibly downcast – then draws a face on his fingers to show that woman to be a hand puppet. Irene likes being kept on her toes figuratively and literally, as when she kicks her shoes off during her dance with Paul. It is her American forthrightness and lack of pretension that immediately attracts her to him. And it is his theatricality and spark that appeals to her, regardless of his station in life. They spend a night together – they joke like it’s a “year” – before circumstances once again pull them apart.

In the original script, Bruce’s driver dies from an inadvertent blow by Paul. But wanting to elicit more audience sympathy after a poor press screening, they had Bruce return to the scene and kill the driver himself, while framing Paul for the murder. Irene agrees to halt divorce proceedings with Bruce if he would keep Paul from harm. And everything goes wild from there, with Paul (and Cesare) moving to New York in search of Irene, taking jobs in a posh restaurant in hopes of luring her there (no one else makes Lobster Cardinale like Cesare).

The plot keeps folding in on itself while the faces of Boyer and Arthur remain beatific, their love a force that transcends the screenwriters’ tricks. Borzage keeps the focus on the white-hot intensity of their attraction, which lingers throughout the elongation of their separation. And when they finally meet again, after all the delays and villainy and bad luck coincidences, it is a purely joyous occasion, their gazes like tractor beams, their smiles explosions. They play husband and wife in the restaurant kitchen, Boyer in a chef’s hat and Jean Arthur in an apron, playacting the life they once thought would be theirs.

And it might have ended there, but according to Borzage biographer Herve Dumont, “one week before the end, just after Christmas, Wanger arrived with a miniature model of an ocean liner. The scriptwriters didn’t know how to end their story, so why not go out with a bang? The producer explained to the stupefied filmmaker that they would recreate the sinking of the Titanic, along those lines!” So, in an improbable sequence in a film full of improbables, Borzage directs the sinking of an international passenger ship in no time with no prep, utilizing lots of fog to block out the sets and setting off his lovers as transcendent beings who were ready to meet their doom as long as they were together.

This insane, ridiculous request just heightened the intensity of the emotions of this film – Borzage takes the time to give extreme close-ups to weeping passengers (including future filmmaker Robert Parrish), embracing the melodrama of the sequence. The conversation held between Irene and Paul, as they think they are about to die, is one of intense gentleness. They ask each other the simplest of questions – what the other was like as a child – to learn more about the other right up until the end. They try to fill in the past until the present snuffs it out, and lit against the smoke and fog, their faces about to be erased, they find their own kind of immortality.