Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Love Affair

Before there was Sleepless in Seattle there was An Affair to Remember, and before there was An Affair to Remember there was Love Affair. These are all quintessential New York movies by virtue of the fact that their plots turn on a meeting that either does or does not happen at the top of the Empire State Building. Of the three, Sleepless in Seattle is certainly the best known, and by making liberal use of the earlier Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr vehicle – An Affair to Remember – released in 1957 – new attention came to that film as well. But it is arguable that the best of the lot is Love Affair released in 1939 (that amazing year for movies) starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

I saw Love Affair recently at the screening room of the New York branch of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and what makes Love Affair stand out are the performances of its stars. Not even Cary Grant plays the charming, elegant, understated playboy as well as Boyer does, and he has the distinct advantage of speaking English in that delicious French accent of his. But for me, the revelation is Irene Dunne. I mean, really, it is just a bit sad that this marvelous actress, comedienne, and singer, is now nearly forgotten by most American movie fans.

Recently, I came across something in which some comedian mentions that virtually all funny people are also musicians. Although there are a lot of exceptions to this, you sort of know what he means with such noteworthy examples as: Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, etc. Irene Dunne was a trained opera singer who flunked her audition at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1920 and then took up musical comedy. She signed a contract with RKO (the studio that starred Fred and Ginger and, of course, took a risk with a guy named Orson Welles) in about 1930 and went on to be a huge star for the next twenty years before retiring to do work for the Republican Party (okay, nobody said she was perfect, though in those days working for the Republicans was like working for, say, Arlen Spector today).

She WAS glorious, though, with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth in 1937 and again terrific with Grant in the 1940 comedy My Favorite Wife. Ironically, she also played Anna in the 1947 Anna and the King of Siam, the non-musical basis for the King and I.

But it was in comedy that she really shined, and I suspect this had something to do with her musical training. Watch her interact with Cary in the Awful Truth or with Boyer in Love Affair, especially in the ocean voyage scenes, and you see that much of the source of her humor isn’t in her lines at all, but in her silences, in the pregnant pauses between words. Those silences, or rests, if you will, punctuated by funny looks or shy, downward gazes, and other times joined with outrageous mugging, are what make Dunne so funny and charming. Sometimes she’ll utter a few nonsense syllables or just say “yes” in that hesitant manner or giggle gently, then a beat intervenes before she speaks her lines again. This sort of speak-don’t speak-shy look-exasperated look pacing (of which Cary Grant is the ultimate master) always made bad lines better and good lines great. Somehow, too, when you get to the end of Love Affair and she has to do all that solemn hedging about her real situation (she is lame from a pedestrian accident that left her unable to meet Boyer in the Empire State) and can’t really be funny, her ability to pace the scene with just the right amount of silence keeps the situation from seeming overly maudlin.

So the next time you hanker for a movie like Sleepless in Seattle or An Affair to Remember, give Love Affair a try as well and pay special attention to the delights of Irene Dunne’s perfectly timed performance.


  1. By the way, Warren Beatty produced a 1994 remake of Love Affair in which he co-starred with Annette Benning. Katherine Hepburn played the grandmother, and I think it was her last film. Beatty shared the screenwriting credit, too, and his character is a retired football player. Appealing actors but a lackluster film; probably not worth mentioning except as an invitation to blog about why remakes are usually (but not always) bad.

  2. So what are the greatest movie remakes of all time? When you consider that as far as I can tell the main candidates are films like Scarface, War of the Worlds, Cape Fear, and The Thomas Crown Affair, the answer has to be...there simply aren't any. Which, I guess, shouldn't have surprised me.

  3. Maybe it's just me, but I like the Steve Martin version of Father of the Bride. It's much funnier than the Spencer Tracy version.

  4. And yet, check out the Wikipedia entry for Film Remakes. The data set is so large that there are two separate pages for the alphabetical listing. A quick Google finds 50 plus remakes in the works right now!
    So, if there aren't any great re-makes, what gives? Must be the old Do Re Mi. They wouldn't make 'em if we didn't buy 'em (tix or DVD's or on-demand, on-line, on-phone, on-plane,train and automobile, etc.).
    We love stories that are told to us; must be in our genes.

  5. On the other hand ... the Steve Martin version of Cheaper by the Dozen was awful.

  6. I agree. Love Affair is better than its remakes because of its stars. It is true as well, I think, to say that the work of Maria Ouspenskaya in this film's pivotal scenes is inarguably superior to that of the later portrayals of that role.

  7. How could I forget about Ouspenskaya. What one critic calls the emotional center of the film depends on her.