An Affair to Remember

Reviews
by Peter Bogdanovich
May 21, 2012 11:59 AM
5 Comments
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Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in 'An Affair to Remember' Twentieth Century Fox
Multiple-Academy Award-winning director Leo McCarey, the man who teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy and supervised all their best silent work, also made perhaps the quintessential screen love story because he knew how to keep the humor in it. Actually, he made the same story twice, with two different casts, 18 years apart. The first one, Love Affair (1939), starred Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, the second had Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and served as the catalyst for Nora Ephron’s successful 1993 comedy, Sleepless in Seattle: That’s 1957’s AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (available on DVD).

In Sleepless, Meg Ryan refers to this Affair as a picture “men don’t get,” which, if the generalization has a base, is probably because the Lothario in the piece is the one who must learn his lesson. The idea for the film——a man and a woman, both engaged to others, meet on an ocean liner, fall in love, agree to rendezvous when they’re free six months later at the top of the Empire State Building, but she has a crippling accident, doesn’t make it, and he thinks she didn’t really love him——came to McCarey in a flash after a three-week European vacation with his wife as they arrived at the Port of New York and saw the Statue of Liberty.

The 1939 Boyer-Dunne version has the more inspired feeling to it, almost as though McCarey were improvising the whole thing as he went along——which, indeed, was often his technique. Being in black-and-white, the first film also has a more realistic atmosphere, and the early sequences of banter between Dunne and Boyer are among the most amazingly fresh comedy love scenes ever captured.

However, the overall emotional impact of the Cary Grant version may be stronger, probably because Grant’s image, unlike Boyer’s, was often comic, and so by contrast the dramatic notes hit all the harder. There are, though, ironically, a couple of comic attempts that don’t quite work, mainly because McCarey was straining a bit, and because Deborah Kerr, good though she is, ain’t Irene Dunne, of the 30s especially.

In certain ways, this is one of the few CinemaScope pictures that is improved by the cropping to TV size, largely due to McCarey’s steadfast, oft-spoken refusal to be bothered composing for the wide screen (which he detested) so that the sides of nearly all the images are irrelevant. The intimacy and essential loneliness of television also help to bring the story closer and to erase embarrassment at being overwhelmed by emotion.

McCarey got his lifelong secret wish on this picture (his last success, and he only made two more films) by co-writing a hit song, the title one, which became a pop standard. The combination of comedy and romantic drama is among the most difficult mixtures to pull off; McCarey was a master at it, and An Affair to Remember is one perfect example. Also the ideal Valentine’s Day, or May Eve (lovers’ night), movie--if the guy isn’t a dope.

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5 Comments

  • kathryn lacey | June 26, 2012 8:28 PMReply

    Both versions have merit. What I remember most is that the scripts (especially the charming love banter) were just about identical. I shall also always remember the gorgeous Kerr wardrobe. How travel has changed


    I enjoyed both versions. What I remember most is the the scripts were nearly identical - especially in the charming bantering love scenes. And I shall always remember the gorgeousKerr wardrobe. How travel has changed-but then, I have never traveled first class on a ship.

  • Phil Wissbeck | June 5, 2012 1:33 PMReply

    Too bad about the sound quality on "Love Affair" but strangely it did not inhibit the feeling of the picture.

  • george kaplan | May 30, 2012 2:18 PMReply

    I prefer An Affair To Remember. First, the religious subtext is more moving. Second the last scene, with the beautiful camera work and Grant's sublime playing as it dawns on him what has really happened, is one of the great scenes in film. Mc Carey's and Grant's timing is perfect, and for me the emotional effect is overwhelming. Also Deborah Kerr( especially for Powell) over Irene Dunne, no contest.

  • karen reilly | May 22, 2012 9:16 AMReply

    Can't help but agree. I adore the film, "Love Affair" and can't understand why people prefer the remake. I think Boyer and Dunne take first prize. It's one of my favorite films.

  • Mark J. McPherson | May 21, 2012 2:20 PMReply

    I've never seen the "original" 1939 version of "Love Affair" and hadn't, until reading this post, thought of Irene Dunne in the role I had always thought of as Deborah Kerr's. Kerr was often a wonderful and affecting actress, but her performance in "An Affair To Remember" has always contributed to my sense of the film as an airless, formulaic and overly stately exercise. It's interesting to consider that at the time of filming "An Affair To Remember", Kerr was about the same age as Irene Dunne when she made her great comedies with Cary Grant. The Kerr and Grant chemistry, more earnest and quiet, tends for me toward melodrama (which may account for the film's lasting romantic currency) whereas the Dunne and Grant chemistry was comparatively combative, alive and certainly more innately comic.

    It is fun to cast-back and slot Grant in for Boyer in 1939's "Love Affair", as Grant was old enough then to more than hold his own. That's not fair to Boyer, of course, and may have moved that film too near a shipboard, comic romp. I don't mean to suggest that either Dunne or Grant were incapable of shifting from high-spirited comic banter to drama within the same picture, as both often enough pulled this off and did so just a few years later in "Penny Serenade", but the pairing of the two is among my favorites.

    And I'm not either being fair to "An Affair To Remember" which has its obvious charms and enduring appeal. Still, it would be hard to watch it again without wishing that Irene Dunne would breeze in.

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