Saturday, May 27, 2006

Charles Boyer in History Is Made at Night (1937)

French stars, as film historian David Shipman has noted, don't translate well. Some never quite catch on, like Simone Simon. Others, like Danielle Darrieux, loathe the place and barely try. Nowadays even the tireless promotional efforts of Messrs. O'Reilly, Limbaugh and their ilk, to whom the French have become a sort of all-purpose homme de paille, haven't given French actors an opportunity to break into the screen-villain racket the way the Brits have. Over the years most French actors have chosen to work on their side of the Atlantic, with perhaps the odd submission to criminal misuse in something like Green Card as an income supplement. The biggest exception was and remains Charles Boyer.

The Siren believes what made the difference for Boyer, more than his talent or those eyes that photographed so beautifully, was his incredible chocolate ganache of a voice. Even the admittedly hilarious Pepe le Pew, conceived as a take-off on Boyer's seductive turn in Algiers, doesn't really diminish the impact. When Boyer speaks, you melt.

In History Is Made at Night, the bizarre but endearing 1937 Frank Borzage movie, Boyer acts opposite Jean Arthur, another player with a celebrated voice. Their scenes are something to hear, this duet of a throbbing French bass and the American whose vocal line someone once called "a cross between Donald Duck and a Stradivarius." Arthur plays the abused wife of a shipping magnate (Colin Clive), who is some kind of evil even by our sadly expanded 21st-century standards. This is a man capable of trying to sink an ocean liner just to kill two of its 3,000 passengers--his wife and the man she loves. Arthur loves Boyer, naturellement. He plays a head waiter who can attend to the needs of his snooty patrons, protect a gentle old man in his employ, and mix the perfect salad dressing.

Borzage, the great romantic, gives the movie a completely two-tone effect. When Clive is on screen, the melodrama is played to the hilt. When Boyer is around, things sparkle, the jokes fly, Jean Arthur tangos in her negligee. It is an odd combination, with the potential to give the viewer whiplash, but it works.

The Siren can't discuss Boyer without mentioning another of his gifts: his incomparable way with a hat. In History, Boyer's impeccable brim is at just the right angle to convey menace, when he punches out a thug menacing Arthur; newfound love, as he goes to meet her after their first night together; bewildered hurt, when he finds she is married. No one wore a hat like Boyer, no, not even Bogart.

[Corrected 11/11/06, with thanks to Ray Davis.]

15 comments:

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

If I ever form an old man's rock band, I'm naming it Chocolate Ganache!

Gloria said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gloria said...

For some reason, Boyer doesn't come well in film stills, so before ever seeing him in film I was thoroughly unprepared to discover the swell actor he was... suffice to say that he is one of the incentives to watch again such enjoyable films like "Cluny Brown", "Hold back the Dawn" or "Gaslight".

Have you ever listened the recording of "Don Juan In Hell"? it is a fine memento of his stage work... quelle belle voix! quel grand comedien!

mernitman said...

"Bizarre but endearing" is the perfect description of this film, one of my favorite Lunatic Pleasures (the title alone is pantheon-able). Nice to see it written up in such a savvy fashion; I particularly loved your Arthur/Boyer duet description...

Peter Nellhaus said...

I just found out that a book on Frank Borzage is to be published according to the TCM website.

goatdog said...

I haven't seen this--I'll have to add it to the pile.

Another exception to the rule, but on a smaller scale, was Maurice Chevalier. It's interesting, though, how few exceptions there are. The only recent one who wasn't criminally misused (thank God Daniel Auteuil hasn't gone the Green Card route) is Jean Reno, who has managed a relatively decent career as a supporting actor (although I'm sure he has his detractors). Oliver Martinez may prove successful. Maybe Vincent Cassel. And I'm out of ideas.

Exiled in NJ said...

Today casting is packaged; no genius in 2006 could have come up with Jean Arthur and Boyer as leads. I have to see this one.

Hat? I always thought it was his eyebrows, which he could raise in amazing fashion, especially to Paula as he put her in her place.

I crack up watching Boyer in service in Tovarich, and arguments ensue around here when I say that his Michel Marnet was far superior to Grant's version. Aside from the obvious Gallic touch, especially with Janou, he reacts to the breaking of the date so much better than Grant.

Back when television was young, Boyer, Dick Powell, David Niven and Ida Lupino [I had to look up Niven] had a half-hour drama anthology, I believe on Thursday night. Each would star in an episode. I can barely remember it, but my parents would watch every week.

Filmbrain said...

Having recently seen Boyer (as you know) in the '73 Lost Horizon (where he resembles the crypt-keeper), it's nice to be reminded of his work in this film, which I've never seen in its entirety, thanks to an old VCR that decided to eat the tape.

"Like Charles Boyer's Hat" -- might make for a great blog name. ;-)

fin said...

I wish that men still wore hats...

Lance Mannion said...

Fin,

Men do where hats. I just wish the hats they wore weren't baseball caps.

Siren,

Ah, cheri, you and Boyer are in the Casbah, making beautiful music together!

That's interesting about the French. I'd never thought of it before. Why I keep coming here, to be told stuff about movies I'd never thought of before. The Germans have done well over the years, and not just because Hollywood needed lots of Nazis to kill. Mostly they've been character actors. No French character actors either. I'm wondering if there's a stylistic difference.

I can't think of any Italians who've made the jump either.

Exiled in NJ said...

Lance, you must mean Italian men. Did you never had an Uma crush on Sophia Loren? For a while back in the 60s, Hollywood was overrun with Italian starlets, some who had success like Claudia Cardinale. Others would make an appearance in a Jack Lemmon comedy or James Bond adventure, and then disappear, to be seen no more.

Lance Mannion said...

NJ,

There's been nobody but Uma for me, before or since, but you're right. I forgot Sophia...and Gina. But their heyday was a long time ago. Meanwhile, the British invasion is neverending.

Ray Davis said...

Colin Clive, not Clive Owner. It was Clive's last movie, and he went out impressively cold and bitter.

Campaspe said...

Ray, thanks very much! you are the only one who caught that particular howler ... I must have been typing very late at night. I hope it won't stop you from dropping by again. Thanks!

Ray Davis said...

Given that I typed "Owner" myself, I don't think you should feel too embarrassed! :)