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.]