And who among us doesn't love squirrelly old romantic melodramas altogether? he asked tentatively, well knowing that in fact many people do not love them, that many people find this kind of overdetermined, overworked combination of unlikely stories and garish emotional displays to be exactly the proof that old movies from 70 years ago are quite tawdry and disposable, thank you very much, and we'll stick to our contemporary movies with some grounding in the way real people actually act, thank you very much (meanwhile, Avatar sets financial records every single time a human being pays money to see it).

I shall point all of you, whether a lover of that particularly pre-war breed of romantic weeper or its enemy, to History Is Made at Night, a 1937 film directed by the excellent and still underexposed and under-appreciated Frank Borzage, a film that will either confirm or confound your existing ideas about that genre, and either validate or completely revolutionise your feelings towards that genre. I understand that what I just wrote is perhaps the least helpful single-sentence review of a movie in history, but that's sort of the difficulty of History Is Made at Night, which is above all else really damn weird, unarguably weirder than any other mainstream 1930s romance that I have personally seen. I don't want to say that it plays like a parody of contemporaneous melodramas; that's overstating it fiercely. It's more of an exaggeration of those melodramas, pushed to absurdist heights... but even then I feel that I'm underselling it. Do you know what the screwball comedies of the same period did to the typical delicacies of the romantic comedies of the age, nor more nor less than injecting a viscous strain of uncut psychosis into the heart of those nice young girls and handsome young men? Kind of the same thing, so maybe we could even say that History Is Made at Night is an example of the extraordinarily rare "screwball drama". I'm not going to come up with a better way to describe it - fuck it, it's just completely awesome, all right? In both the common "impressive and pleasing" and biblical "instilling a fearful sense of awe"definitions.

Like a lot of love stories, it begins not by introducing either lover, but the individual who'll be driving the plot by keeping them apart, or trying his damnedest to. This would be Bruce Vail, a tremendously wealthy Englishman, who is not taking his divorce proceedings very well. Now, Vail is played by Colin Clive, who appeared in just a small number of films between 1930 and 1937 (he'd make only one more film before dying of tuberculosis that same year), and yet that was quite enough to leave him with one completely iconic character, who was recognised as such already even by the time History Is Made at Night was filmed: Clive, of course, played the mad, impassioned Dr. Henry Frankenstein in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. I mean no disrespect to a talented actor to say that he can't open his mouth (or stand silently, fuming in anger) without reminding you at least slightly of his most famous role; and does this film get a certain benefit from having its villain call to mind a mad scientist with a God complex? Yes it does, and I belief Borzage was too intelligent a filmmaker not to understand that and use it to his benefit. In a film that is shortly going to go crazy itself, we're already primed to understand that Vail is probably a bit nuts himself, and it takes just a scene or two to start paying that impression off.

Vail's soon-to-be-ex-wife Irene (Jean Arthur) is the subject of his paranoid ravings about her phantom unfaithfulness, but he also wants her more than any other woman. Learning that the terms of their divorce settlement are nullified if she is intimate with another man within the next little bit of time, he sends his chauffeur Michael (Ivan Lebedeff) to Paris, essentially on orders to rape her, and Vail will storm in just in time to see her "cheating", and all will be happy in his life again. Luckily for Irene, the hotel room next door happens to have, at that moment, a man standing in it who has just brought his drunk friend home to sleep it off; that hero is Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer), who overhears the struggle and jumps in from the balcony, knocking Michael unconscious. Just then, of course, Vail and the detective (Lucien Prival) come in, and hey, one strange man in Irene's room is as good as another, but Paul heads off Vail's scheme by pretending to steal Irene's jewels and then kidnap her as his ticket out of the hotel. With his plans foiled, Vail does the only thing he might do, that any of us would do: he murders Michael and plots to blame Paul for the crime.

We are, at most, ten minutes into the movie right now, and it has already escalated from "jealous ex-husband wants to win his wife back" to "jealous ex-husband arranges his wife's rape" to "jealous ex-husband murders the crap out of his chauffeur to frame a fake jewel thief". Which is why I've quoted the plot at such length; because that level of jam-packed narrative incident for all 97 minutes of the film's running time. And at this point, mind, we have absolutely no damn idea of where the plot is going; there are at least three different mini-narratives over the course of the one greater love story. Anything I say for the next while might count as a spoiler, depending on how much you want the intensely delightful experience of watching the film to be pure and untainted, so tread carefully. First, Paul and Irene head over to Chรขteau Bleu, the finest restaurant in Paris, where the head chef Cesare (Leo Carrillo) agrees to make them a lovely dinner, but they're too busy falling in love to eat it. This is, by the way, the only moment in the whole movie where it feels at all like you'd expect a 1930s romance starring Charles Boyer to feel. The next morning, Vail tells Irene that her new boyfriend is in trouble with the police, and if she won't come back to America he - Vail, that is - will explain every incriminating thing he knows. So they head back. After a little bit of schmooping about, Paul learns that the Vails are reunited, and so he goes to America to find them taking Cesare (we've learned by now that Paul is Cesare's headwaiter, the finest head-waiter in Paris); and here's where the movie goes off the rails completely, in the best way.

Paul's perfectly reasonable scheme to find Irene in the teeming mass of New York City is to bully the owner of a shithole restaurant to hire Cesare and himself, and when they've made it the hot place in the city (for after all, the finest chef and the finest headwaiter in the world ought to be able to do that without a hitch), the Vails will surely come in, being important wealthy people. It takes a while, but they do, right on the same night that they're meant to head to Europe on the Hindenburg to greet Vail's new ship, the Princess Irene, when she lands. Don't let the name-dropping fool you: the movie opened more than two months before the Hindenburg explosion, which actually makes subsequent events all the crazier. Paul convinces Irene to stay, and Vail is pleased to announce that he'll inform the Paris cops everything - then he darts off to the airship. Paul decides that he must go to France and face the music, so he and his love hop on her namesake boat and settle in for a romantic sea voyage, perhaps their last moment of happiness together. Finding out that his ex and his hated rival are together on his boat, Vail makes a last attempt to beat them both, and it's a doozy: he orders the ship's captain to go to full speed, to set a crossing record; but of course the real reason is that he wants the Princess Irene to go full-on Titanic in the north Atlantic. And it does - but there's a solid 20 minutes of movie to go yet, and you can't stop a good love story that easily.

This... this is not a movie that was actually made, in the 1930s, is it? The mind rebels against the thought. Even if it had never gotten out of the first act, there would still be enough crazy bends in just that scenario to make History Is Made at Night one of the silliest and therefore most magnetic of all '30s romantic melodramas. But in the subsequent hour, the movie goes so far off the deep end in terms of what contrivances it expects the audience to swallow and how flat-out goofy it allows the plot to get along the way, that I can't imagine even an indulgent producer allowing Borzage and writers C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne to get away with all that they do. Yet here it is! A film in which virtually nothing plausible happens after the first scene, and which we're either going to accept or reject purely on our desire to see movie stars in love. That's the film's most impressive achievement as far as its genre goes, without a doubt: it sacrifices story logic, bloodily, in favor of its love story - the film repeats the basic pattern of a lot of romantic dramas (divorced woman falls in love, the ex gets in the way, she has to go with him, the new guy is sad, he finds her, they run off, the ex has one last trick), but it has been tarted it up in such far-out situations that the filmmakers almost seem to be playing a trick on us, presenting the maddening impossibilities of their scenario with so little inflection, so little "ha, isn't this CRAZY?" posturing, that we can't help but reflect on how every other movie with the same basic arc is at heart just as impossible. Or maybe I have it exactly wrong: maybe they're trying to say that the basic core of a love story is so potent and durable that even the most insane chain of events can't keep two lovers down. Hell, maybe it's supposed to be both at once. I will say only this about History Is Made at Night: it's never, ever boring, though it is one of the least plausible films of its whole decade.

Compared to a great many of Borzage's films, this one doesn't have a particularly bold aesthetic, though certainly it looks lovely (the IMDb suggests that the great Gregg Toland did some uncredited work as cinematographer, alongside David Abel). The best thing I can think to say of History Is Made at Night is that it is elegantly-crafted boilerplate, a film done in precisely the standard visual mold of all Hollywood movies of that time. Which is not, I think, undeliberate; no less deliberate than casting Charles Boyer as the romantic Frenchman - Boyer, who is certainly charming and continental, is also generally a bit stiff and mostly just serves to be swooned at (compare Love Affair, where he must do very little else and is great, to Gaslight, where he must do a great deal more, and fails). Boyer's presence grounds the film, makes it seem like, hey, just another European love drama, and the entirely undemanding visual style of the film does the same thing, in contrast to all the ways that film goes loopy as hell on us: the loony plot, Colin Clive's slimy, screaming performance, and even Jean Arthur, who hadn't yet made most of the comedies that we still remember her for, but who always had a strange screen presence combining beauty and with with a certain desperate, nervous edge. I, for one, can never be completely at ease when I'm watching her, and that works outstandingly well in a film like this, where I'm never at ease anyway.

So my point being: Borzage was a damn smart man, and he carefully layered the routine and the simple with the outlandish and bizarre, making History Is Made at Night a more or less perfect combination of the outrageous and cartoon-like, with just enough details to keep it planted on Earth that it doesn't zip away into flat-out surrealism like, just to grab a latter-day comparison, the films of Baz Luhrmann (not that I don't love his movies, too, but in 1937, they would have broken cinema). At any rate, coming when it does, near the end of a period when Hollywood was unusually open to mashing up genres and breaking rules in the wake of the tempestuous arrival of sound, History Is Made at Night is something of a last burst of manic energy, before the '40s came and nice movies had to behave according to nice generic conventions. It's one of those borderline-forgotten films that comes from nowhere and hits you like a semi-truck; but damn me if it isn't just about the most perfect thing, all the same.