Monday, May 16, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: LOVE AFFAIR

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's "Blogothon" about movies made in that incredible year of 1939. Click here for a complete listing of all entrants and turn back the setting on your time machine to 1939!


Just as the Empire State Building looms large in the background of this film, so, too, does the shadow of its remake, 1954's "An Affair to Remember" (both films directed by Leo McCarey). Everyone knows and loves that film, both for itself and it's inspiration for "Sleepless in Seattle" (not to mention the 1994 re-re-make starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Katharine Hepburn). What could this neglected original possibly have to offer? In a word: EVERYTHING!


THE STARS
Let's talk about Irene Dunne. I am currently in the midst of a 2011 love affair with Ms. Dunne, so I was especially happy to review this movie. She is the essence of 1930s elegance, humor and sophistication. I ask you: did any woman ever wear satin gowns, jeweled bracelets and furs with such easy elegance? And I don't care what Pauline Kael said about her, I am mad about that little thing she does with her tongue or her teeth that makes her sound so completely and charmingly unique. She is lovely, of course, but she is always a mature woman; a gorgeous, appealing, wonderful mature woman. Deborah Kerr was a fine actress, but she was earth-bound and earnest. Irene Dunne was of the heavens. It's hard to compete with an angel.

Charles Boyer is a more complicated matter. When this film first premiered in 1939, he did not have to compete with the memory of Cary Grant in the same role. Because Cary (and that song) are seared in my brain, I was prepared to have a hard time accepting Boyer in Cary's role (even though Cary hadn't played it yet). In addition, my most lasting impression of Boyer was mainly as Ingrid Bergman's murderous husband in "Gaslight" ("Powla, where iz ze leetle peek-ture?"). After watching this film, I now know why Boyer was such a big star and such a heartthrob. He is the perfect continental charmer and the perfect leading man. He never steps on his leading lady's toes and he always makes sure she is seen to her best advantage. A true gentleman.


THE STORY
International playboy and soon-to-be married layabout Michel Marnet meets former nightclub singer and soon-to-be married Terry McKay on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic from Naples to New York. They flirt like mad. Irene Dunne is particularly delicious in these scenes, flirtatious but wary of this continental honey bee whose charms she finds irresistible. Boyer, however, is the revelation here. He is a cad looking for a casual dalliance and his body language suggests nothing short of a wolf on the hunt. He is the pursuer, she is the pursued (while Grant usually pursued with reluctance, Boyer does so with gusto).

After a little romantic hide and seek, they kiss and fall in love. They agree that their love affair should be light and bubbly, like the pink champagne cocktail they both adore. No dark clouds allowed. At a stop in Madeira, Michel takes Terry to meet his sweet grandmother (played by Maria Ouspenskaya) in her idyllic home. Grandmother approves of Terry for her wayward grandson and here Terry (and the audience) gets to see a tender side of Michel. Naturally, both she (and we) fall in love a little harder. Terry also learns that Michel is a talented painter, although he has chosen to live the life of a dilettante rather than that of a starving artist. Upon bidding her farewell, Terry admires Grandmother's lovely lace shawl. Both Terry and Michel agree it has been a magical day.

Back on the ship and pulling into New York harbor, both lovers agree to take six months to get their lives in order and then to meet at the top of the Empire State Building to begin their new life together. Terry picks the spot because it is the "nearest thing to heaven."
In the ensuing six months, both Terry and Michel ditch their fiancées and pursue honest work (Terry makes her decision standing on a balcony at night, the Empire State Building seen in reflection). She finds work in Philadelphia as a singer and he pursues his art (and paints billboards while he waits for someone to buy his paintings). They are on course for their rendezvous atop Manhattan when Terry, in her haste to meet her lover, carelessly rushes through a traffic-clogged city street and is struck (mercifully off screen) by a car. Naturally, she does not keep her appointment, but Michel waits and waits and waits (in a thunder storm, no less). Hope turns into disappointment; disappointment turns into despair.

Terry, now wheelchair bound, takes a position teaching children at an orphanage. Although her ex-fiancée urges her to tell Michel what has happened, she refuses. For all of her sacrifice, she does not have faith that he will be able to accept her as she is now. She does not believe in the depth of his character. If she is not all pink champagne and cloudless skies, she fears rejection.
On Christmas Eve, both Michel who now is bitterly pursuing the high life (but who continues to paint), and Terry meet by accident at a show. Both are with their former partners. They are cordial, but shaken. As Terry was seated, Michel could not see her condition.

On Christmas Day, Michel finally tracks terry down at her apartment. She is on her couch, legs covered with a blanket, so Michel still does not see her plight. His manner is brittle and angry, and it is clear that his heart has been broken. He comes bearing a gift - Grandmother's shawl, which she left to Terry upon her death. Terry, overcome with emotion, still refuses to tell Michel why she failed to keep their appointment. He tells Terry that he is going to sail to Europe that night, but then tells her a story about a painting he did of her in Grandmother's shawl. As he relates the story of how he had the painting given to a woman in a wheelchair who admired but could but afford it, he realizes that Terry was the woman in the wheelchair. Seeing the painting in her bedroom confirms his suspicion and at last he understands all that she has sacrificed for him. Michel proves his depth of character and love by vowing to stay with Terry no matter what the future holds. They are, indeed, the real deal.


WHY THIS FILM WORKS BETTER THAN THE RE-MAKE

The fact that this movie was made in 1939 is the reason it succeeds better than the 1954 version of this story. In 1954, this was just a love story (although a very affecting one that still touches the heart) and it was presented as a straight-forward romance. The original version has all kinds of background shadows and "noise" (including the noise in the hearts and minds of the audience).

1939 finds the United States on the brink of the unthinkable, determinedly in denial of how little furs, big bracelets and pink champagne will soon mean. The deco charm and elegant penthouse sophistication were fantasies with which movie audiences still connected, even as the threat of evil was on our doorstep. Soon, ships of a different kind would dominate the world's seas. How necessary, then, were those wonderful fantasies; how important they were to sweep the anxiety and cares away, if only for an evening. 

Boyer and Dunne are always play acting in their flirtations, never letting the other know the depth of their love or their fears. Just as a more serious tone would invade the free world, so did the realities of life eventually invade the make-believe love affair that became all too real for our hero and heroine. Heart break, loneliness, loss and paralysis were not part of the bargain. But Hollywood always personified the American spirit of optimism, even as those storm clouds gathered in the distance. Just as Terry and Michel vowed to face adversity together, Dorothy returned to Kansas, Scarlett faced her losses and the passengers of a western Stagecoach battled the evil in their path.

Despite insurmountable odds, there was never any doubt that all would triumph.

This was the world of 1939 and the story of "Love Affair,"  a tale that was more than a love story. Seen from a 2011 perspective, it is a film that is true to its time and one whose echoes are relevant to our own.




28 comments:

Kendra said...

I've seen An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle but have never seen Love Story. Thanks for the great review!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Kendra. I had seen only them, too, so this film was a nice surprise!

Rick29 said...

FlickChick, you make a convincing argument that LOVE AFFAIR is superior to its remakes because of its timely backdrop. However for me, I think it's the star power and the chemistry of the stars that really make the story work--and it's hard to top Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. I still like the original version and the 1990s remake isn't awful. Thanks for a most enjoyable review!

Caftan Woman said...

Your beautifully written approach to "Love Affair" should easily convince anyone of that movie's superiority.

I have a backward approach to Leo McCarey's films. I first saw "An Affair to Remember" on television when I was a youngster and not so into love stories and thought it silly. I first saw "Love Affair" as a sentimental adult when I realized there was a lot more to being silly, and it won me totally.

DearMrGable said...

I too feel that "Love Affair" is superior to its remakes. Beautifully told and Irene Dunne proves she is more than a comedienne. Great post!

FlickChick said...

Thanks to Rick, CW and DearMr.Gable - I appreciate your comments!

Diane said...

I agree, the 1939 version was the best. You made me remember how wonderful that film was, and how much I loved it.

FlickChick said...

Seems like they just couldn't make a bad movie in 1939.

Clara said...

I really enjoyed this film and your review. Irene & Charles are great together. But I still prefer the one with Cary and Deborah, even when it's an exact copy. I don't know. I saw this remake first, plus Charles can't compete with Cary in my papers. In this case, I prefer the Technicolorish pink martini, over the black and white one. Or something...I don't drink. LOL.

Grand Old Movies said...

Great review! You've really caught for me why Love Affair is superior to its remakes (I'm one of that tiny minority who prefer the '39 version to the more famous Grant-Kerr remake). Irene Dunne is a goddess; she was always so perfect in everything she did. I love her teasing of Boyer in the ship scenes; she had a light touch in comedy that Kerr could not approximate. And Boyer had a wonderful ability to suggest depth and heartbreak behind his continental sophistication. I hope more people get to see this film - thanks so much.

Rachel said...

Thanks for this great review. Now, I'll have to cave in and see this one. I just saw An Affair to Remember for the first time only last month so I'm quite curious about the original.

Tell me though, are there any good supporting characters in this one? That was my biggest complaint about the remake. The supporting characters (with the exception of the grandmother) have no weight and whenever I had to watch scenes without Grant and Kerr together, my interest level sagged. Made me appreciate the divine Eve Arden.

FlickChick said...

It is really hard to get Cary Grant out of your mind when you watch this. I think the perfect 1939 version of this would have been Cary and Irene together (sorry Charles).
@ Rachel - not great supporting players here, either, other than Maria Ouspenskaya. There are not many supporting roles in either film. The other fiancées are pretty dull.

Page said...

FlickChick,
I'm so glad you chose a film that you enjoy so much! Although I've enjoyed every remake of this one I will always adore the original. Dunne never looked more beautiful and Boyer never so handsome. Their chemistry knocked my socks off too.

One of the first early films where I bawled my eyes out. (Sorry Penny Serenade fans)I just didn't like that film or Irene in it.

A very enjoyable and heart warming review on a top notch film.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Page. I agree that there is just something special about this 1939 gem!

DorianTB said...

FlickChick, I've never been a big fan of weepies and full-speed-ahead romance; I tend to gravitate toward romantic comedy-mysteries. However, seeing how much LOVE AFFAIR means to so many people and how lovingly you wrote about it here, I'm thinking I owe LOVE AFFAIR a look. Thanks for the recommendation!

FlickChick said...

Dorian - give it a whirl. The first half is a sophisticated comedy, so it's not a weepie!

ClassicBecky said...

FlickChick, I had always loved Love Affair, mostly because of Charles Boyer's many-layered gallant, yearning characterization of the man. I too think it is superior to the remake, and perhaps part of that was an unconscious understanding of the aspects of timing you so wonderfully described.

Excellent work on a great love story, and one that points out how dedicated bloggers like you have been to doing superb reviews for the blogathon!

R. D. Finch said...

I too saw the remake first. Cary Grant is my favorite screen actor. Yet when I saw the original, I immediately knew it was the better movie. Charles Boyer could be a wonderful actor, but the CHARACTER he plays in this version is just much more interesting than in the remake. Irene Dunne was just a fantastic actress--lovely, versatile, and incredibly charming. This is my second favorite performance of hers after "The Awful Truth" (also for McCarey but in a totally different vein). A highlight is when she sings "Plaisir d'Amour" in that lovely soprano voice for the grandmother. As for supporting actors, Maria Ouspenskaya as the grandmother gives the best performance of her career. Best of all, this version is shorter and doesn't feel padded and doesn't run out of steam in the second half the way the 1956 version does. And it may be sentimental, but the remake is positively saccharine in comparison. A great post that does justice to one of the all-time great romantic movies.

FlickChick said...

Becky - thanks for the blogothon. Not only was it great fun to take part in, but also read all of the wonderful posts! It's bee a great 2 days - now ready for DAY 3!

RD - totally agree. As much as I love Cary, the re-make does feel padded and overblown. The original is simple, direct and affecting.There is also a less, as you say saccharine, edge.

Dawn said...

Wonderful review for the classic film "Love Affair", the romantic film of 1939, stands out for me because the great chemistry between Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

It's a joy to watch these two actors performing on screen. They made it look so easy that their acting seems effortless.

FlickChick said...

Dawn - so true - Irene Dunne & Cahrles Boyer had great chemistry. They were both very generous to their co-stars always. Great performers.

Classicfilmboy said...

Love your review and this film. I also have preferred this version to the Grant/Kerr remake; it's as if they took this version and made it "bigger -- in color -- in Cinemascope" when they really had nothing to improve on, because the original is ideal. This is arguably Boyer's best role, and Dunne is lovely as always. .

FlickChick said...

Classicfilmboy - you are so right. The re-make is a bit much (but it does have Cary Grant - without him, the movie isn't much). This one is close to perfection.

The Lady Eve said...

I also prefer "Love Affair" to "An Affair to Remember" - tho I admire Deborah Kerr as much in a different way as I do Irene Dunne. Poor Charles Boyer has no chance against Cary Grant with me, tho. I haven't seen "Love Affair" for a while, but the later film seemed more hokey to me. Wouldn't mind if Cary Grant had co-starred in the original, Irene Dunne was his ideal co-star, the two were magic together.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lovely review, and you make some excellent points. I've always preferred the 1939 version. Both films had top-notch stars, but the original had a wistfulness and gentle humor that was missing in the remake.

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve & Jacqueline: I think we are all in agreement that if not for Cary Grant, the remake would be just overblown. I agree that Cary & Irene in the original would have been terrific, but Boyer brings a romanticism that is hard to beat!

Brandie said...

Nice post! I actually saw Sleepless in Seattle before I saw either this film or An Affair to Remember (and I choose to ignore the existence of the '94 version, despite the presence of lovely Kate Hepburn). I infinitely prefer Love Affair--it's not as maudlin as AATR. Dunne is one of my favorite actresses, and even though I much prefer her in comedies like The Awful Truth and Theodora Goes Wild, she's very appealing here. Never been a huge Boyer fan, but I agree--in this role, he's simply marvelous.

FlickChick said...

Brandie: Agreed that the 54 version is just a rather overblown love story with 2 terrific leads and a great song. The original really has much more authenticity, if that can be said about a fantasy love story, and it has Irene Dunne. As much as I love Cary Grant, I vote for the original.