Monday, March 14, 2022

New from Criterion: Love Affair (1939)

Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer's shipboard first meeting in Love Affair (1939).

The filmmaker Leo McCarey has been largely forgotten, but his Hollywood career spanned four decades and bridged the silent and talkie eras. Like Frank Capra, he received his training in silent comedy: he directed more than seventy-five shorts, and he was responsible for the collaboration of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. When movies began to speak, he put his expertise at working fast and off the cuff to great effect – he directed the most brilliant of the Marx Brothers’ early Dadaist masterpieces, Duck Soup (1933), as well as helming pictures that starred W.C. Fields, Mae West and Eddie Cantor. His thirties output included two memorable comedies, Ruggles of Red Gap (with Charles Laughton as an English butler in the Wild West) and The Awful Truth, where Cary Grant strives to win back his ex-wife,  played by Irene Dunne. It also includes the romantic melodrama Love Affair, starring Dunne and Charles Boyer, which Criterion has just put out in a glistening print restored from sources in the Museum of Modern Art collection.

The story, by Mildred Cram and McCarey, has been filmed three times. Because it was a TV staple for years, the version people know is the 1957 Technicolor remake, called An Affair to Remember, which McCarey also directed, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the Boyer and Dunne parts. But that edition is bloated and dawdling – it runs a full half-hour longer than the trim, eighty-eight-minute original – and it doesn’t do much for either of the two leads. (Warren Beatty’s 1994 Love Affair, featuring Beatty and Annette Bening and a sadly over-the-hill Katharine Hepburn, is a mistake.)  The plot, famously quoted in Sleepless in Seattle, focuses on a French playboy named Michel Marnay and Terry McKay, a Kansas-born Manhattan transplant, who meet on a ship bound for New York. Both are engaged – Michel to an heiress (Astrid Allwyn), Terry to her boss (Lee Bowman). They fall in love and agree to meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building if they’ve managed by then to straighten themselves out, which means breaking up with their current partners and setting themselves back on the artistic paths they shouldn’t have abandoned – his as a painter, hers as a singer. They accomplish their goals, but fate intervenes on the day set for their reunion. As she’s crossing the street to meet him, she’s hit by a car and winds up in a wheelchair. Terry determines not to tell Michel what’s happened until the day she can walk to his arms, if it ever comes. Michel, of course, just thinks she stood him up.

McCarey and the screenwriters, Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart (who adapted Philip Barry’s two best high comedies, Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, to the screen), do wonders with this soapy narrative. The romance is built on banter, economically rendered, elegantly framed and very thirties in style. Naturally the material twists your heartstrings, but in terms of the filmmaking almost nothing is pushed. There’s only one really bad scene, where Terry wakes up after the operation has failed to restore her mobility, and a couple of unfortunate interludes where she coaches an orphans’ choir to sing a wet Buddy De Sylva ballad called “Wishing.” McCarey draws on his comic gifts in the shipboard scenes, and even when the story doesn’t permit much latitude for humor, he manages to find some – as in a scene where Terry visits a dressmaker’s and the saleswomen, not realizing she’s no longer engaged to her wealthy former employer, cause her some embarrassment by calling him up to confirm her credit.

For a modern audience Dunne may be an acquired taste. She’s all technique – every effect is carefully prepared – and her hefty soprano is definitely in operetta mode. When she strikes up the Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler tune “Sing My Heart” at a Philly nightclub, her theatricality almost kills it. (Luckily the song’s charms come through anyway.) But her artificiality has its charms, too. In an introduction to a collection of three screenplays by Samson Raphaelson published in 1983, the critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Actors now don’t really know how to move and speak and wear their affectations in the way that the performers of forty and fifty years ago did; they’re not trained to be radiant. What then seemed almost-natural-but-better may come dangerously close to being arch.” Dunne isn’t a high-comic genius like her contemporary Miriam Hopkins or the stage-trained Ina Claire, who made a handful of movies mostly in the early thirties (Dunne came from the stage too), but her timing is sharp and her air of civilized amusement carries her half of a romantic-comic scene when she’s paired with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth or My Favorite Wife. And she can act, though the noble, long-suffering heroine roles she usually played in dramas could be a pain. (As a straight actress she’s best in George Stevens’s 1948 film version of the long-running Broadway play I Remember Mama.) The last half hour of Love Affair leans on her noble side, but not too heavily; we can thank McCarey’s direction for that.

And it’s as easy for an actress of skill to respond to Charles Boyer as it is to Cary Grant. God, he’s wonderful. The movies Boyer made toward the end of his career tended to be single-mindedly focused on his celebrated Gallic charm; you have to go back to the thirties and forties to see how effortlessly charming he could be in comedy (History Is Made at Night, Tovarich, Cluny Brown) and how moving in drama (opposite Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds, Katharine Hepburn in Break of Hearts, Danielle Darrieux in Mayerling). The scene in which his Michel works out what has happened to Terry is pretty much the essence of melodrama – like the end of the 1937 Stella Dallas, where Barbara Stanwyck stands in a crowd of onlookers at the high-society wedding of the daughter who no longer knows her – but Boyer’s lightning-struck response grounds it in authentic emotion. Criterion Channel should put together a Boyer tribute, beginning with the work of his early days in Hollywood and culminating in his greatest triumph, with Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica, in Max Ophüls’ peerless 1953 The Earrings of Madame de . . .

McCarey’s film wraps itself tightly around its two stars; there isn’t much for the supporting players to do. The exception is Maria Ouspenskaya, who plays Michel’s grandmother, Janou, the widow of a diplomat who resides in Spain because that’s where they lived when her husband died; she’s impatient to join him, as Michel explains to Terry as he takes her to meet Janou on an afternoon when the ship docks nearby. (This is the role, or some variation on it, that Hepburn plays in the 1994 remake.) Ouspenskaya was one of a pair of émigré Russians who brought Stanislavski’s teachings to America in the twenties, but in Hollywood she was cast as inscrutable (generic) Europeans, and unhappily she’s best remembered as a Transylvanian peasant woman in The Wolf Man. Love Affair is the rare picture in which she gets to display some warmth, and though she’s in only one scene she’s very good. Her performance is one of the pleasures of the movie.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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