Soap Gets in Your Eyes

Boyer Meets Girler

At the climax of Frank Borzage’s soaring romance HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT, a ship suspiciously like the Titanic collides with an iceberg and the passengers sing “Near-er, My God, To Thee.” When Borzage decides he wants to film specific extras singing and crying, there’s the chance for them to earn an extra two dollar fifty adjustment in their salaries ~

“[Second unit director] Ripley said, ‘How many of you can cry?’ We all held our hands up and he said he would try us out, one at a time. He started testing at the opposite end of the line. I was so nervous I ran out to the toilet. While I was there, I noticed the bar of Lux soap which was furnished to all studios in exchange for publicity photos of the stars using Lux. I scraped  my fingernails across the soap, lodging enough Lux under my nails to keep me crying for a week. When I got back to the set, Ripley and [dialogue director Joshua] Logan were having a rough time. They had found only three genuine criers. The rest were poking themselves in the eyes and thinking about their dead mothers, the Depression, the loss of the two-fifty adjustment, and any other sad thoughts that might bring on tears. When my turn came, I squeezed some soap into my eyes and burst into song — ‘E’en tho’ it be a cross, near-er to Thee — near-er my God to Thee, near-er to Thee…’The tears flowed, the cameras rolled, and Frank Borzage’s reputation as a sentimental director was intact.”

~ from Growing Up in Hollywood by Robert Parrish.

I always thought it kind of weird that this movie, which begins with some of the most fabulous romantic stuff in all of ’30s Hollywood cinema (a fairly romantic time and place even at its worst), should end as a kind of disaster movie. Apparently the film was being rewritten during the shooting, but that doesn’t explain anything much — the sinking ship was obviously always part of the plan. Maybe the last-minute rewrites prevented the five writers involved from establishing the clues that would have made such an ending inevitable as well as surprising (traditionally an ending is supposed to be both). True, Colin Clive (in one of his last roles) is established as an ocean liner magnate early on, but it doesn’t seem that important.

Would you sail in an ocean liner built by Doctor Frankenstein?

I must watch the film again though, because (a) I still think the first half is astonishingly good, with really dynamite work from Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer, two actors who are always good but prove to be exceptionally good together and (b) now that I know it’s coming, the sinking ship probably won’t bother me at all.

Borzage, the presiding genius, does manage a plot twist with his version of TITANIC that James Cameron would never have dared — the ship doesn’t sink! I admire very much the cheek of that.

5 Responses to “Soap Gets in Your Eyes”

  1. Can’t you think of the ship as upping the stakes, a way of taking a love story further after having taken it as far as it can go? Admittedly it’s an unusual move, but when you watch it again, I think you’ll see that the ship stuff is paced as if it’s part of the personal story, not as if the film is switching genres. And, of course, it puts love in a bigger philosophical context, not such an easy thing to do.

    As far as plot devices to turn love into melodrama, I certainly like this one better than the contrived fight that separates lovers in the second half of so many movies…..

    I think Parrish is unfair to call that effect sentimental. It’s actually disproportionate to how much the audience can be expected to care about those bit players, and so rather startling.

  2. Quite true, Dan. And the combination of Boyer and Arthur is exceptionally romantic in a very movie-satisfying way.

  3. dcairns Says:

    I’m sure you’re right, and I think the slight discombobulation will dissipate on re-viewing. They do take the trouble to set up Colin Clive’s shipping line, and the plot turn has the positive effect of providing a big finish, taking care of Clive and his inconvenient status as spouse to the heroine, and illustrating, in a weird, quasi-religious way, the power of love, which is certainly in keeping with the Borzage world-view.

  4. Watched this last night and loved it, bizarro ending and all. I mean, in a film whose plot turns on a headwaiter pretending to be a toff pretending to be a burglar to save a woman by pretending to kidnap her…. and then, separated from her, his master plan is to take over a restaurant in NYC, where he’s never been before, and turn it into The Place to Go…. a non-sinking Titanic is the least peculiar plot element by quite a ways. I was slightly bothered by the way the ship’s captain, under only quite slight pressure from Colin Clive (as Bruce Vail, only syllables away from being an embittered millionaire crimefighter) agrees to steer his ship into almost certain death. But who cares – the subject of the whole climactic sequence is to persuade that even fifteen minutes on the deck of a sinking ship with somebody you love wholeheartedly is better than a lifetime of ordinary living. And it works!

  5. Borzage is nothing if not an arch-romantic and History is Made at Night possibly the greatest romantic title ever. So I think you’re right.

    I think I might stage a second Borzage week this year sometime, I have stacks more to watch, and upgrades of several I watched earlier.

    Ah, if only Colin Clive had donned a bat costume and fought crime, how different his fate might have been.

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