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.