An Affair to Remember: 50th Anniversary Edition
1957; Director: Leo McCarey; Screenplay: Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart, Mildred Cram, from their script for the 1939 film Love Affair
With Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning, Neva Patterson, Cathleen Nesbitt
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Available Jan. 15, List Price $19.98
All right, it's closer to the 51st anniversary; the film came out in the summer of 1957. But who would quibble about this budget-priced two-disc set of a weepie classic? I wouldn't; I saw the movie when it was new and have reseen it every five years or so since. Times, styles and morality have changed, but An Affair to Remember still holds its warmth, laughter, pain and humanity.
Nickie Ferrante (Grant) is a notorious playboy; the TV news shows chronicle his sexploits, as well as the word of his engagement to a socialite worth $600 million. Terry McKay (Kerr) is a chanteuse with a quality that manages to be both womanly and virginal; she has been supported in her singing career by a rich boyfriend (Denning) but is more cautious sexually, and risk-averse when she bumps into Nickie on a transatlantic cruise. The barriers between them don't exactly crumble; they melt away in admiration at the inevitable collision of two stars, before they work out their collective Hollywood destiny.
This story made a perfectly fine movie when Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne were the couple in McCarey's Love Affair. But it's incandescent here, in its melding of comedy and melodrama, the buoyancy of the shipboard romance and the hard landing when the lovers separate on docking in New York, promising to reunite six months later at the top of the Empire State Building. As Terry exclaims, "It's the nearest thing to heaven."
Shot in CinemaScope, the movie nonetheless concentrates on two attractive vertical lines, Grant and Kerr, standing close to each other, swapping sweet barbs and eventually falling into each other's arms. The two actors hadn't made a movie together, and their reputations varied widely, but they had a lot in common. Both were Brits with an unforced aristocracy about them: he the fellow all women desired and men admired, she the belle who was used to being stared at but didn't quite believe she deserved the attention. The ease with which they bore their celebrity helped them realize that they didn't have to do much of anything; the audience would take pleasure enough in just watching them be. That's one of the secrets of the best old movies: the liberating dictatorship of star quality.
The commentary track by film historian Joseph McBride is lucid, encyclopedic and relatively sober. I say that because McBride, in a 1973 collection called Favorite Movies: Critics' Choice, used another McCarey film to enunciate the principle of film critic as emotionally susceptible human being. As near as I can remember, it went: "If you don't cry when Ingrid Bergman gets tuberculosis in The Bells of St. Mary's, then I don't want to know you and that's that." I don't agree with the particular movie, but I heartily endorse the sentiment. Not to give away an ending that most readers probably know, I'll just say that if you don't well up when Cary Grant discovers that [something bad] happens to Deborah Kerr, and she says [that famous line], then let's just promise not to discuss the topics of movies, romance, emotion or life itself.
The extras include reminiscences by Barbara Grant, Cary's last wife (47 years his junior) and widow, and by Peter Viertel, Kerr's husband for 47 years and her companion as she was depleted by Parkinson's disease; she died last October, he 19 days later. There's an excellent analysis of the film's CinemaScope compositions; the makers of extras often forget that movies are more than the sum of their dialogue, acting and special effects, so it's good to see the film's old-fashioned grandeur laureled here.
Don't miss the 22 min. documentary on McCarey, a lawyer and songwriter who in the '20s and '30s was a master chef of movie comedy: he brought Laurel and Hardy together, directed the Marx Brothers' sharpest satire, Duck Soup, extracted Charles Laughton's gifts as a melancholy farceur in Ruggles of Red Gap. He also, the doc asserts, virtually created Grant's screen legend. While making The Awful Truth in 1937, the young actor supposedly mimicked the handsome Irish director's gestures and self-depreciating wit. Into The Awful Truth walked Archie Leach; out strolled Cary Grant, the movies' epitome of roguish class.
McCarey, a fervent (if not exactly observant) Catholic, had a mile-wide streak of sentimentality, evident in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's, and in the kids' choir scenes in those movies and An Affair to Remember. The words of the title song, which McCarey helped write, make the movie's tryst seem like a sacrament: "So take my hand / With a fervent prayer/ That we may live / And we may share / Our love affair to remember."
The piety and emotional fidelity of 1957 have vanished; so has the easy radiance worn like a subtle perfume by stars like Grant and Kerr. But An Affair to Remember endears and endures not as a relic of times gone by, but as a permanent touchstone. The film shows that the movies' perennial question, What If?, can refer not only to science fiction and horror, but to affairs of the heart. What If two beautiful people met, fell in love and, against all odds, made their affair the nearest thing to Heaven?