The movie that inspired the popular Sleepless in Seattle (1993), director-producer Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, was actually the remake of a picture McCarey had conceived and directed nineteen years before with the suave French star Charles Boyer and the elegantly delightful Irene Dunne: A picture McCarey preferred to his second version, and one of the most affecting romantic comedy-dramas ever made, 1939’s now very rarely seen LOVE AFFAIR (available on DVD).
It’s the same plot: two engaged (even “kept”) people—-he a painter/gigolo, she a singer/mistress—-meet on an ocean cruise, fall in love, agree to rendezvous six months later (atop the Empire State Building) when both have extricated themselves from their current situations and are ready to stand on their own (emotionally, financially) in a really meaningful relationship. Both happily accomplish their goals but only minutes before the planned reunion, she is injured in an auto accident, paralyzed waist down—-doesn’t want him to know, to be with her out of pity. And he thinks she just didn’t keep the date because she didn’t really love him. The eventual resolution of this dreadful misunderstanding is, of course, positive and also heartrending.
In each version of the story, it’s very much the spontaneous, often improvised ways McCarey and his actors handle the individual scenes that give the works their special magic. Although Cary Grant is among my favorite film stars, the original Love Affair is nevertheless the better of the two on every level: fresher, sharper, quicker, less sentimental, done with more feeling and greater integrity. Irene Dunne is lighter than Deborah Kerr, more fun in the early romantic comedy sequences; even as the tale darkens, she remains more appealing, less dramatic, therefore ultimately more moving. And Charles Boyer, a major heartthrob of my mother’s generation, is certainly more believable as a painter than Cary—-the French accent doesn’t hurt in this regard—-and is entirely Grant’s equal in the sexual banter, the comic boy-girl stuff. Being a more versatile actor, Boyer also registers more colors and nuance, is continually more surprising; that we’ve never before seen him like this helps too, makes the performance a revelation.
Ironically, the black and white photography doesn’t date as much as the ‘50s color and superfluous Cinemascope. McCarey himself had such contempt for the widescreen process that he virtually ignored it, so that the air around the figures is both redundant and distancing. Finally, also, Love Affair is somehow wittier and more adult than An Affair to Remember, yet I’ve always enjoyed the latter.
Having won the Oscar as Best Director for his 1937 screwball comedy The Awful Truth (starring one actor from each Affair, Dunne and Grant) McCarey that same year had also made his own personal favorite, that rare masterwork about old age, Make Way for Tomorrow, and didn’t know what to do next. For inspiration, his wife suggested they go on a European vacation. Coming back a month later by ocean liner, McCarey still had not a breath of an idea right up until the moment the Statue of Liberty came into view and then, the director told me, the entire essential plot of Love Affair came into his head all at once. And the picture, which he made next and which was one of his biggest successes, still conveys a kind of exhilarating certainty, at once a sense of purity and extemporaneous abandon, and remains perhaps the most romantic and archetypal American love story: really funny, truly charming, deeply poignant. While far-fetched, the film is totally believable, probably because McCarey made it with such utter conviction and himself profoundly agreed (he confirmed to me) with the sentiment of the song Dunne sings: “Wishing Can Make It So.”