Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Let's Have "An Affair!"

Cynics stand back. This sentimental and romantic tearjerker is for folks who love to curl up on the sofa and get to know an appealing couple and then cry as they undergo various torments. It's a cinematic concept (often with little or no relation to reality) that has pleased many a filmgoer through the decades. In fact, this film is itself a remake of 1939’s Love Affair, done by the very same director Leo McCarey. I’m talking, of course, about 1957’s An Affair to Remember.

Always-elegant Cary Grant plays a rather idle playboy with a notorious reputation, engaged to a super-rich (even in today's terms!) heiress (slyly portrayed by raven-haired Neva Patterson.) He's on his way home to New York City from Europe via a luxury cruise liner when he happens upon Miss Deborah Kerr, an austere beauty who, unlike virtually every other woman he’s ever met, resists his charms. Naturally, that only encourages him more, so he works on winning her over.

Once they've discovered their mutual affection for each other, they realize the inappropriateness of it (she's heavily involved with another man,
Richard Denning, herself) and they strive to separate from each other. They keep, embarrassingly and, to be truthful, in a contrived manner, winding up either next to each other or otherwise bumping into one another every time they turn around. All the while, fellow passengers keep nosing into their business and, almost as a Greek chorus, commenting on and reacting to the pair. Eventually, though, in spite of the implied incorrectness of it, they find that they can't resist the thought of spending time together and give up, sharing a memorable afternoon with Grant's aged grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt.)

Nesbitt lives practically alone in an old, but sumptuous, villa with its own chapel.
While there visiting, Kerr sings along with Nesbitt as she plays a romantic song on the piano (it is the title song of the film) and Nesbitt can sense that there is more to this couple than just being shipboard acquaintances. However, rather than concluding that Kerr is just one more fling of Grant’s she can sense that this is really “the one,” a lady who Grant can and should settle down with.

Finally, the couple has to admit that they really are in love. They throw caution to the wind and begin to really enjoy one another. Still, with each of them connected to other people, they can’t risk word getting out about them, especially before they land in New York. One close call comes when an eager photographer snaps an incriminating photo of them on deck and they have to get a hold of the film.

Since they are each heavily romantically entangled with others and have no real means of supporting themselves or each other, they agree to take six months to establish themselves financially and prepare for a life together. Inspired by the sight of the city as the ship approaches The Big Apple, they decide to meet on the 102nd floor of The Empire State Building at the end of their self-imposed separation.

Disembarking and falling into the arms of Denning and Patterson, Grant and Kerr give their respective lovers’ actual intendeds the once over. Grant decides to make something of himself by painting, a youthful hobby that he hopes to parlay into a career. This decision is met with considerable resistance when nearly all of his paintings are disparaged by his agent. He continues to paint, but not the way he thought he might!
Kerr finds more luck as a nightclub singer. She is shown performing an Irish tune (which, like the other songs she sings, is actually being done by Marni Nixon, the same vocalist who dubbed the bulk of Deborah’s singing in the previous year’s hit musical The King and I.)
Even though she has dumped Denning, he remains devoted to her. He continues to want to reclaim her even up to the day she has determined to meet Grant at the top of the Empire State Building (as she puts it later, “the nearest thing to heaven” she could think of.)

Unfortunately, while Grant waits for her amid a throng of sightseers and vacationers, she is delayed and cannot make it to him. He waits and waits, eventually in the rain and as the caretakers are closing the observation deck down, but she still hasn’t made it there. Dejected, he exits the building and eventually turns to Patterson again, who is glad to have him back.

This is not the end of our couple, however. They have two more meetings left. One awkward one occurs at a splashy theatrical event and finds both of them in attendance with their former squeezes. The other is an impromptu visit by Grant to Kerr’s apartment. Here is where the hankies come out as he pretends that it was HE who didn’t show up and forces her to squirm for recollections of how it was that day when she was allegedly the one kept waiting. It’s an impossible game of cat and mouse and tit-for-tat emotional toying that the two stars put over magnificently.

Suddenly, Grant begins to put the pieces together based on what he’s seeing and what has occurred in his own life and realizes the true nature of what occurred that day. This cathartic, emotionally wrenching revelation had 1957 audiences bawling in their seats and continues to touch viewers over half a century later. The final segment of this film is counted amongst the very greatest romantic scenes ever put to celluloid.

Grant is his typically suave and endearing self. Always at home in both comedy and drama – a rare gift indeed for a studio era leading man, he has little trouble inhabiting the dual characteristics of his role. Like Charles Boyer in the version before him, he was considered one of the top romantic leads of his era.

Kerr, an appealing and attractive actress, does a fine job as well. She and Grant, despite their seventeen-year age difference, create a couple to root for. She, however, due to her inherent sense of class and taste, hardly suggests the child of a Boston drunk as the script dictates! These two are also both a little mature to be approaching marriage for the first time, especially Grant in his mid-50s! That's Hollywood, though.

Nesbitt does an excellent job in her extended scene, cementing the romance between these people and seeing in advance what they may not be aware of yet. Her role was handled in the original by legendary character actress Maria Ouspenskaya. When the story was filmed again in 1994, this part was taken by Katharine Hepburn, who was rather ill, had been retired and would not commit to doing the role until, literally, the eleventh hour. It would prove to be her final film role and for some reason, the writers found it necessary to have her drop the F-bomb within her dialogue. Ahhh… progress.
As the jilted partners, Denning and Patterson are strong. Denning is the definition of understanding without coming off as a too much a sap. Interestingly, he had been the male star of a successful radio program opposite Lucille Ball called My Favorite Husband
and CBS pitched it to Ball as a TV series. Unfortunately, the only way she would agree to it was if her husband Desi Arnaz was cast. Thus, Denning was out and I Love Lucy, as we know it, was created. He retired with his wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, to Hawaii, but soon took a recurring role on Hawaii 5-O as the governor, eventually appearing in nearly seventy episodes. When Ankers died in 1985 after forty-three years of marriage, he remarried the next year and that union lasted twelve years until his death in 1998.

Patterson adds a welcome dose of high society plasticity tinged with a sexual underpinning. With the movie leaning towards the elegant and understated side, her throaty sauciness adds a much-needed does of spice to the proceedings. As of this writing, the eighty-eight year-old Ms. Patterson is still with us. She continued to act on TV up until 1992 before retiring. (UPDATE: Heavens to Betsy! Ms. Patterson died on 12/14/10, just six days after this posting... R.I.P., my dear.)

An Affair to Remember is gorgeously photographed and beautifully appointed, though budgetary restrictions dictated that some scenes be shot against a blue screen when location work
might have been preferred. The first hour has the feeling of a mild drawing room comedy with some unusual bits of humor thrown in (mostly supplied by fellow passengers on board the ship.) Though the script is heavily based on the original, it was tweaked a little to suit this set of stars and several bits of dialogue between Grant and Kerr were the result of improvisation that they did on the set, which the director chose to incorporate into the film.
The second hour is more dramatic, but is augmented by the inclusion of several musical numbers. Many people loathe these numbers and,
in truth, they needlessly extend the running time, but there is occasional brightness to be found in them. Perhaps the best approach would have been to only show part of the songs (cutting in or cutting away) instead of making the audience sit through entire numbers from start to finish. In any case, "The Tiny Scout" is a definite oddity with some really homely, but strangely endearing, children chiming in at various times. The youngest girl is particularly amusing, especially in an (unscripted?) encounter with the edge of Kerr's bed!

Though common sense does at times take a back seat, the point of the film is to wring emotion out of the audience
and, on that score, it succeeds beautifully. It’s not going for documentary-style realism. It’s pure Hollywood romantic hokum and something you either buy into or don’t. Only a Grinch could remain stone-faced during the (exceptionally well-written and acted) final sequence in which the lovers confront each other after their separation. Most viewers will be yearning for a reconciliation through a stream of tears.
The mid-50s through the mid-60s was a period in which many of the old tearjerkers were updated with color, often widescreen, remakes. Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, Back Street and Madame X are all examples of the practice of dusting off a well-loved earlier version and dressing it up with lavish settings, lovely gowns, jewels, etc… Irene Dunne was the star of Love Affair and Magnificent Obsession. Interestingly, she had also played Anna Owens in the film Anna and the King of Siam, which was musicalized on Broadway and eventually became the film The King and I, which Deborah Kerr starred in (this time as Anna Leonowens.)

The title song, crooned by Vic Damone and played over shots of a snowy New York City, is indeed beautiful. It was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to the equally beautiful (and now standard) All the Way from The Joker is Wild. Other nominations included the score and the cinematography (which both lost to that year’s stunning Best Picture The Bridge on the River Kwai) and the costumes (which lost to Les Girls.) The costumes by Charles Le Maire are strangely muted and often of unusual colors (some might even go so far as to call a few of them pukey!)

When Sleepless in Seattle was released in 1993, it incorporated An Affair to Remember into its storyline of two people finding unexpected romance and finally meeting atop The Empire State Building. Star Meg Ryan is shown watching and deeply reacting to the film along with her pal Rosie O’Donnell and later brings it up again with friend Rita Wilson, causing them to cry about it all over again. Sleepless being a massive hit, it sparked interest in Affair and gained it a new generation of fans.

The next year, a horrible, wrong-headed Warren Beatty-Annette Bening remake (with the original title Love Affair) surfaced (and quickly sank.) Despite a lush production and a very interesting cast, it just could not recapture that old Hollywood mush factor (nor could such a story possibly succeed as an example of realism.) It looked good on paper, but the end result left a great deal to be desired and the bulk of its core audience rejected it. Considering all the cinematic flotsam that has come out since ’94, it may look better today if one is willing to give it another try. I’m in no big hurry to do so!

Grant and Kerr had worked together i
n 1953 in the film Dream Wife, so they had a nice bit of history together to build on when filming Affair. They later did The Grass is Greener along with Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons, but this pairing is by far their most memorable. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it has a way of absorbing you into the stars’ burgeoning romance and leading you to invest in their goal of togetherness and happiness so that by the finale, it is surprisingly cathartic.


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