“Love Affair” (1939) is the original version of the 1957 “An Affair to Remember” with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. The original features Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, and seems to have a more screwball comedy type feel to it that makes the melodrama at the end all the more poignant.
Boyer is an international playboy who has never worked a day in his life, and Irene Dunne is ostensibly a buyer on a business trip for her boss, but this is only a mask of legitimacy for a carefree socialite who accepts expensive gifts from her boss, whom she does not love. The two of them cross paths on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, sipping pink champagne and trading smart aleck flirtation in grand salons and even grander staterooms.
We have some pretty good rear screen projection of the ocean behind them as they take numerous walks to the rail to gaze out over the sea (except for one moment when Miss Dunne makes a wide gesture with her arm and we see the shadow of her sleeve on the ocean backdrop). There’s a cute bit of banter between Dunne and little Scotty Beckett, who you will remember from “The Little Rascals” shorts. He plays a little boy performing gymnastics on the banister of a staircase on board ship, and she warns him to be careful.
“You’ll fall and hurt yourself! When I was little like you, I broke my leg.”
“How is it now?”
“It’s all right.”
“Then what are you crabbing about?”
Miss Dunne displays very good comedic timing, and her chemistry with M. Boyer is charming. A very brief, but high note of their journey comes at a port of call where they visit his stately grandmother, played by Maria Ouspenskaya. Her Shangri-La-type villa is a place of otherworldly peace and serenity. There is a small chapel on her property, and when Dunne and Boyer enter for an interesting moment of devotion.
I cannot recall another film of this period (correct me, please, if you can think of others) which illustrates Roman Catholic ritual at a time when most Americans (Catholics not being in the majority) were probably not exposed to it. Director Leo McCarey later gave us “Going My Way” with a Catholic priest as the protagonist, but there was more about the rectory than the Mass in that film. Even Spencer Tracy’s forays into film priesthood did not exhibit demonstrations of Catholic ritual. There had been films with kindly priests counseling gangsters on the way to the electric chair, but few films showing the altar and two lay people going through the act of formal devotions at kneelers.
Miss Dunne replaces the hat on her head that she had removed and carried earlier (pre-Vatican II, cover the heads, ladies). There is an icon of the Virgin Mary prominently displayed, and both Dunne and Boyer cross themselves upon rising from their prayers. It is a simple scene, but quite effective in propelling their romance. The silence and serenity of the chapel creates an intimacy wherein they both feel deeply conscious of each other’s presence, and seem more self-conscious as they leave the chapel. Up until now their flirtation had been harmless and shallow. It is their time spent at the villa, starting with the chapel scene, that their romance really begins.
Another lovely scene is when Mme. Ouspenskaya, whose frail, European dignity is contrasted with Miss Dunne’s tall, healthy, corn-fed, American vigor as they prepare tea. Mme. Ouspenskaya plays the plaintive “Plasir d’Amour” on the piano, and Dunne sings the chorus. The focus is on Boyer as much as the ladies, as we see how affected the carefree playboy is to see the two most important women in his life together and here is where he really begins to fall in love. When the distant sound of the boat horn announces they have to get back to the ship, Maria Ouspenskaya tears up with the almost childlike whimper, “I hate boat whistles.” They leave, but not before Dunne’s sensitive character comes back for a final hug and kiss, knowing that not just they, but life, is leaving this lonely old lady behind.
Back on the boat the couple are confronted with the suspicious, nosy glances of their fellow travelers eager for a bit of gossip, and we trace their voyage with a cartoon boat proceeding on a line across the map. Anytime I travel, I always look out the window for these movie indications of the conquering of distance, but it never happens. This has always been a disappointment.
Acknowledging their love, they firmly resolve to separate and make something of themselves before they can be together. Miss Dunne gets to sing a bit more, and M. Boyer becomes a famous artist, which leads to the final melodrama. When he sees his painting of her in her apartment, which his agent gave to a poor lame woman for free, he realizes she is the lounging on the couch with a blankie over her legs because she can’t walk, not because she callously jilted him by not showing up at their rendezvous point on the top of the Empire State Building a year before.
This is a bit more maudlin in the remake, and I think what makes it work here is Boyer’s wonderful expression of humility, even more than sympathy, in the presence of the self-sacrificing woman he still loves. Only moments before he is full of haughty anger and pride, and pushes her into lying about why she missed their appointment. It is a sudden shift, which has us off balance and leads to a breathtaking ending. Such sentimentality seems more out of place in 1957 with the smooth Cary Grant and the cool Deborah Kerr. Dunne and Boyer do not seem as sophisticated, the times do not seem as sophisticated, for all that pink champagne, and that makes these two oddly more believable.