An Affair to Remember (1957)

In 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, Nora Ephron’s paean to An Affair to Remember, Annie (Meg Ryan) is watching the 1957 Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr romance with her fat, dumpy male friend (Rosie O’Donnell) as they lip-sync lines of dialogue and blubber in lovelorn pessimism.

“Men never get this movie”, complains Annie’s violently unattractive chum.

The amorphous eyesore is correct.

The male of the species does not care for “chick flicks”. And that is both a character flaw and a call to reason.

Few differences in the sexes are quite as glaring as film taste. At the risk of stereotyping, it is generally observed that men like explosions, nudity, and fart jokes in their films while the fairer sex prefers emotion, a well-chiseled hunk with cubed abs, and unadulterated pap. Neither seems too concerned with aesthetics.

This disparity is never more tangible than when a pair chooses movies to watch together in the first few fragile months of a relationship. There is usually a lot of bargaining, power plays, arguments, and resentment that, if the couple is to survive, must be channeled into the realization that they must go see separate films and meet back in the theater lobby afterwards.

It is film preference- not infidelity, financial woes, or in-laws- that dooms most male/female partnerships.

Leo McCary’s 1957 An Affair to Remember is a film that both highlights this dissimilitude and shatters it as illusion, all within its own divided structure.

By the mid-1950s, Leo McCarey’s once heralded career was floundering. The director had not had a hit since his two shameless panders in the mid ‘40s with Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. Most of his current notoriety was as a HUAC snitch and a man that made films that were, at best, regrettably Catholic. Approaching the age of sixty, it was felt by many in the industry that his best days were behind him. He needed a project familiar to his skills, one that would return him to his halcyon days of the ‘20s and ‘30s. A period that saw the director establish the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, contain the brilliant chaos of the Marx Brothers in their finest film Duck Soup, and make two of the most enduring comedies in film history with Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful Truth.

It was decided he would remake his own version of Love Affair, the very successful 1939 romance starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. McCarey felt the film would be enhanced in color and the relatively new phenomenon of Cinemascope. In addition, he could get Cary Grant involved with the project and perhaps rekindle some of the magic they shared in The Awful Truth. It was a safe gamble. The story was timeless, Grant was always bankable, and the broadening tastes of 1950s American film audiences were hungry for anything with an international flair to it. This appetite was whetted by the Film Advisory Committee who, in response to growing Cold War anxiety, sought to spread good will to many foreign nations by depicting them as ideal vacation spots and romantic getaways to the ever-increasing amounts of post-war Americans willing to travel abroad.

Ingrid Bergman was originally sought for the female lead, an idea obviously born from the desire to re-team her with Grant and cash in on the magic they shared in Notorious. However, the actress was disinterested in the role and it ultimately fell to Deborah Kerr, the red haired Scottish beauty who was coming off successes in From Here to Eternity in 1953 (rolling around on the beach with Burt Lancaster), The King and I and Tea and Sympathy in 1956. Often known for playing frail, mannered women, Affair was a welcome change for her career. Here, she was confident, sexually assured, alternately coy and playful, and able to show a conversational humor that was dormant or non-existent in her previous roles.

Kerr’s newfound aggressiveness was necessary to keep up with Grant, whose dashing, nonchalant air had long been legend. Has there ever been a more suave son of a bitch in the history of cinema? Grant made acting look like a casual stroll over an easy street on a sunny day. Yet it is a testament to his craft that he could also play in the brooding dark. Few handsome male screen idols elicited as much depth of emotion in a single glance. His face and eyes always lent deeper shades of understanding to a scene. His timing was impeccable and he carried himself with a debonair assurance that always edged toward the cocky, but never fell into arrogance or bravado. It is hard to dismiss many critics’ assertions (especially David Thomson’s) that Grant may be the finest film actor of all time.    

An Affair to Remember works best when Kerr and Grant are at the peak of these faculties. Their improvisations (many were kept in the final cut), timing, obscene good looks, and playful banter make for a charming screen couple. Their verbal give and take is equal to the best work of Tracy and Hepburn and their otherworldly attractiveness rivals Flynn and de Havilland. The first hour of the film contains some of the greatest romantic moments ever committed to celluloid.

Even the most testosterone-filled, gunplay-hungry, mouth-breathing male can admit to that.

What comes after the halfway point of the film is what arguably divides people’s perception into separate gender camps. For the unfamiliar, celebrated playboy Nickie Ferrante (Grant) and nightclub singer Terry McKay (Kerr) are on a cruise liner traveling around Europe. Both are engaged to be married. He to an heiress and she to a wealthy businessman. Alone, bored and with few others to relate to on the ship they strike up a rapport from a “meet cute” over his cigarette lighter. Nickie’s cavalier attitude toward relationships is revealed when asked to play cards. His response?

“I cheat. It’s an addiction.”

She is initially unreceptive to his advances. His pick up line to the stern faced Terry is “Tell me, did you write the song I’ll Never Smile Again?

He is definitely a player. Grant was well into middle age by this time (He was 53) and the graying temples and deeper character lines only added to his allure. Nickie is tan, pithy, ironic, witty, he paints, speaks fluent French and Italian, is kind to his grandmother, children and dogs and is, of course, preternaturally handsome.

Terry is every bit his match. She is warm, intelligent, engaging, equally quick-witted, level headed and stunningly gorgeous. They easily fall in love, despite their previous engagements, and agree to meet atop the Empire State Building in six months if they both continue to feel the same way about each other. In the interim, she will return to her nightclub act and he will seek an honest (?) living with his painting.

It is in their flaws that the characters become believable. Nickie is a middle-aged man who has never held a job. He is a philandering gadabout, a cad, a bounder. He is either indifferent or verbally dismissive to surrounding admirers who ask little more than a chat or an autograph (Grant was surprisingly similar to fans in real life). He loathes his celebrity but would be lost and undefined without it.

Terry is no saint either. Much could be said of a relatively minor nightclub singer who ties herself to a wealthy businessman with whom she has little in common. A loveless, trophy arrangement undoubtedly. Despite her sanctimony and initial reluctance to be seduced, it only takes her the length of a cruise to decide to ditch her fiancé and fall for the advances of a notorious womanizer. She also too often wears orange and peach hues (unbecoming on a redhead) and drinks pink champagne (The “real” definition of alcohol abuse).

For the monogamously pure-hearted, both of these people are little better than lying, cheating, gold-digging dogs.

But, in all great romances, love can cure and save all.

It has a damn hard time with the second and third acts of this film however.

After the halfway mark, when the lovers plan to meet in six months, there is the obligatory, interspersed “montage” of establishing Nickie’s art career, and Terry’s Irish-soaked “Toora Loora Loorablarney at the club. Then the film takes a turn for the melodramatic worse. Terry, on her way to the anticipated meeting atop the Empire State Building, is struck by a car and misses the tryst. Infirmed and crippled, she is unable (and later unwilling) to contact Nickie (who feels he was forsaken intentionally) due to pride and an unwillingness to burden him with her injuries. Yes, she is Catholic. Suffer little children.

Ironically, we must as well. There is the most incongruous, tacked-on segment of schmaltz ever forced into an otherwise enjoyable romance. Terry has ditched the nightclub act (for obvious reasons) and now teaches music to young waifs at a Catholic school. For what seems like ten minutes of soul stripping agony, the children (who are remarkably bad actors, even for the ’50s) perform musical numbers to the Priest and Terry’s approval. The only saving grace is the near pratfall one of the snot-nosed little pests takes after tripping on a carpet ridge. Hat’s off to McCarey for leaving it in. Of course, he wasn’t cutting much of anything by this point.

Other missteps include Kerr’s terribly performed hospital bed hallucinations, the hardly believable acceptance of all the proceedings by her former fiancé, and the simple fact that you can forget just about anybody in six months, particularly if you had only known them briefly, never slept with them, and have recently lost the use of your legs.

There is also enough saccharine to cause diabetes mellitus.

This is where most of the males in the room will get up for a beer or go masturbate. The women will be weeping inconsolably, wondering how the persons they have chosen to love can be so hard-hearted.

This is where we came in.

An Affair to Remember is that unique film that treads the dividing line between plausible, touching romance and grossly maudlin manipulation.

Terry has a very telling line as the Empire State building comes into view from the cruise ship. She calls the structure “the closest thing to heaven in this city.”

She is being romantic and, inevitably, wrong. It is the 1968 New York Jets and the stromboli at Ray’s Pizza.

My advice to new couples or those seeking a more amicable movie watching arrangement with their significant other is to have two separate rooms, DVD players, and televisions. Barring that, watch this film. Just make sure, if you have testicles, to leave at the fifty-nine minute mark and go finish the ball game. For the women, you have another hour of viewing, crying and judgment. That selfish bastard would never have understood anyway.

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