History Is Made at Night
Suffused with intoxicating romanticism, History Is Made at Night is a sublime paean to love from Frank Borzage, classic Hollywood’s supreme poet of carnal and spiritual desire. On the run through Europe from her wealthy, cruelly possessive husband, an American (Jean Arthur) is thrown together by fate with a suave stranger (Charles Boyer)—and soon the two are bound in a consuming, seemingly impossible affair that stretches across continents and brings them to the very edge of catastrophe. Lent a palpable erotic charge by the chemistry between its leads, this delirious vision of lovers beset by the world passes through a dizzying array of tonal shifts—from melodrama to romantic comedy to noir to disaster thriller—smoothly guided by Borzage’s unwavering allegiance to the power of love.
Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night receives a new Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a brand-new 4K restoration that was performed by Criterion. This is the first time the film has been released on home video in North America since the early 90's, when Warner Bros. released it on VHS (a LaserDisc was released in the 80's).
Though the restoration demonstration included with this disc indicates that the available source materials were in decent shape to begin with (most of the footage is sourced from a 35mm duplicate negative with a 35mm fine-grain positive filling in missing sections), it’s still quite stunning what Criterion has managed to pull off here. It's in incredibly crisp looking image with an extraordinarily high level of detail through most of the film's runtime, even when it looks like a filter or soft focus is being used, and it's to the point where you can make out the fine details and texture of a sheer of curtain waving in an early apartment scene. Film grain is rendered brilliantly as well. It’s heavy but fine most of the time, getting a little thicker and heavier in shots scattered about, which becomes more obvious during the climax of the film. These portions end up having a generally "dupier" look, with grayscale that's not as clean or as impressive as the rest of the film, so it's probably safe to assume these come from the alternate source. When all is said and done, though, these fluctuations in quality are minor in the grand scheme of things.
I was also impressed with the handling of the fog in the closing sequences. This is also touched on during the restoration demonstration, and the end results look outstanding, delivering a natural looking fog without ruining the grain structure, all encoded beautifully here as to not deliver any artifacts along the lines of banding or rings. The image has also been stabilized so pulsing and other fluctuations are not an issue. Tiny scratches and small bits of debris can still pop up on occasion, but most of them you have to be looking for (and I suspect some were left to not over-digitize the image). The clean-up job on this is impressive.
Altogether this is a real stunning looking presentation. I hadn’t held up much hope for it, figuring that materials had been rotting away somewhere, but I’m happy to see I was wrong. This has turned out quite wonderful.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the lossless PCM 1.0 presentation of the film’s soundtrack. Criterion has chosen not to use any excessive filtering, so while there is some background noise and a slight edginess at times, the audio comes off sounding quite sharp with a decent amount of range, a foghorn delivering quite impressively on the lower end of things. Damage is also not an issue, and everything sounds crystal clear.
The film doesn’t get a stacked special edition, but the supplements are at least strong in quality if not quantity.
Criterion carries over from The Criterion Channel a 13-minute interview featuring Farran Smith Nehme talking about Borzage’s work. History is Made at Night doesn’t get much of a mention but she looks at his overall work, the tone he creates for each, his visuals, and the common themes he liked to tackle, focusing on A Farewell to Arms, Man’s Castle, and No Greater Glory.
To focus specifically on the film, Peter Cowie and Hervé Dumont show up in a 23-minute discussion (recorded in 2018) to talk about Borzage and this film’s production, which, to the surprise of no one I’m sure, sounds to have been basically made up as production went on (producer Walter Wanger pitched just the title to Borzage when he first approached the director to make the film). They get into the idea of the “Borzage touch,” trying to define what that is here by talking about a number of the film’s sequences and visuals, and also discuss some changes that were made to the film, including one key plot point that, in my opinion, helped further make the film’s antagonist that much more threatening and a choice he makes later that less surprising.
As mentioned in the Picture portion of this article there is also a 9-minute restoration demonstration that gets into details about the search for the perfect elements and the challenges the restoration offered (like that fog at the end), which I found quite fascinating. Criterion also digs up a couple of archival features: 31-minutes’ worth of audio from a 1958 interview with director Frank Borzage and then a 27-minute radio adaptation of the film for The Screen Guild Theater from 1940. Borzage focuses on his early work in Hollywood from actor to directing, sharing a few stories that include how he directed Gary Cooper. The radio adaptation is an interesting specimen, though: to squeeze everything into the short time slot the story is moved to a trial that takes place after the events in the film, with key moments told in flashback. It's an odd structure, though allows for a lot of spoken exposition. The whole trial ends up being all for naught since the film’s antagonist, entirely unprompted, just confesses to everything out of nowhere while on the stand. The audio quality is unfortunately rough, dropping out a bit and coming off distorted in places, but it’s an amusing little adaptation that even has Charles Boyer reprising his role (it sounds as though Myrna Loy was supposed to be his co-star but she became ill and couldn't participate).
The included insert (made to look like a pamphlet for Vail Cruises’ “SS Princess Irene”) then features an essay on the film by Dan Callahan, who covers the charms of the film despite its somewhat fraught production.
So again, not packed, but I was pretty captivated by all of the content Criterion has gathered together.
Featuring some engaging supplements and a gorgeous looking presentation, this release comes with an easy recommendation for those looking to finally own the film.