Born April 23, 1894, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Frank Borzage wanted to be in entertainment since he was a kid. That takes money, so Borzage worked odd jobs in mines and on cooking lines to pay his way. Work and travel with various theater companies got Borzage out of Utah and eventually landed him in Denver, where he called on impresario Gilmor Brown. Brown was looking for young actors, and Borzage had what Brown was looking for, so the theater director took the young wannabe south to Florence, Colorado, where Borzage cut his teeth rehearsing Shakespeare.
Borzage spent two seasons touring with Brown, then stuck out to Hollywood, where he ended up in pictures—first as an actor, then as a director in a six-decade-long career spanning silent to sound cinema, creating a signature style that became synonymous with his name. If a movie could be “Hitchcockian” or have “the Lubitsch touch,” it could also be Borzagian.
It’s fashionable today to dig through cinema’s vast back catalog to find harbingers of progress and modernity. Movies that speak more to today’s ills than yesterday’s. That’s not the case with Borzage: His films are imbued with the DNA of their era, not to mention irony-free spirituality and romanticism without cynicism.
Take Moonrise, the noir-stained melodrama Borzage made for Herbert Yates of Republic Pictures in 1948. The story concerns Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark), a young man who’s never escaped the shadow of his father’s hanging. These scenes: Dialogue free and loaded with expressionistic shadows and bodies bisected by the frame are highly stylized. They transport viewers immediately to a dream realm just left of reality—the realm where movies are most effective.
And Moonrise is quite effective when it wants to be. Some of Clark’s acting is stilted, and the plot conspires against him in ways that feel contrived, but all of it is to bring Danny to the place where he can transcend his familial past and walk with his head held high. Add to that an exceptional supporting cast (Rex Ingram, Gail Russell, Allyn Joslyn, Ethel Barrymore), the movie’s central sequence at a carnival—which is as anxious and bizarre as anything Orson Welles puts forth in The Lady from Shanghai—and you’ve got the makings of a classic that plays your heart as much as your head.
Now take History is Made at Night from 1937, a movie that is as soothing as Moonrise is anxiety-inducing. Working from a title and two pages of ideas provided by producer Walter Wanger, Borzage and writers Gene Towne, Vincent Lawrence, David Hertz, and Graham Baker craft an adult love story that is neither screwball nor tragic. Funny, yes; heartbreaking at points, definitely, but neither tips the scales in either direction.
The story: Married couple Irene (Jean Arthur) and Bruce Vail (Colin Clive) despise each other. He builds steamer ships and loves his work more than her. Irene wants out, and so does Bruce, but he refuses to let her go scot-free. While staying in Paris, Bruce conspires to frame Irene with another man—his chauffeur, played by Ivan Lebedeff—but a bystander, Paul (Charles Boyer), spoils the ruse when he thinks the chauffeur is attacking Irene. Paul intervenes and knocks the chauffeur out cold just as Bruce and the chief of police enter the room, hoping to catch Irene and the chauffeur in the act. Instead, they find an unconscious chauffeur on the floor and a roguish-looking Paul, complete with fedora pulled down low and coat collar up, standing over him. Thinking fast, Paul pretends to be a thief, kidnaps Irene, and hightails it out of there while Bruce and the chief of police are still trying to put two and two together.
But Paul’s no thief; he’s just a charming French man. So charming, it almost feels as if Irene conjured him out of a dream. During their getaway cab ride, Paul gives Irene back her jewels and assures her he means no harm. He then suggests a fabulous night of dancing and champagne at the Château Bleu, and Irene is swept off her feet.
And all of this takes Borzage less than 10 minutes to plow through. History is Made at Night moves with breakneck speed, twisting and turning ever so slightly along the way. Borzage says they improvised the movie, and the entire 97-minute runtime feels like the film is following the “Yes, and?” structure. It works magically. Some of the beats are familiar—they fall in love, life intervenes, Irene must leave for New York without saying goodbye, Paul decides to follow—but the rest has a cleverness to it that still seems fresh. How will Paul find Irene in a city of millions with no address and last name to go off of? Easy, he’ll get a job as a head waiter in one New York’s best restaurants, make it the talk of the town, and, naturally, she’ll come calling. She does—that’s not a spoiler; it happens halfway through the movie—and the close-up of Paul’s face when he sees Irene across the room is enough to make even the most ardent cynic’s heart melt.
It’s also the stuff that became touchstones for future parodies, sincere or otherwise. But in Borzage’s hands, those moments disarm you, even if you do see them coming a mile away.
Both Moonrise and History is Made At Night are available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection. Both sets contain a discussion between film historian Peter Cowie and Hervé Dumont (author of Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic), while the latter also includes an interview with Borzage from 1958, an interview with critic Farran Smith Nehme from 2019, a radio adaptation of the film starring Boyer, a video demonstration of Criterion’s restoration, and an essay from critic Dan Callahan.
Header photo courtesy the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.