Love Affair (1939)

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  • directed by Leo McCarey
  • starring Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya
  • Michel and Terry fall in love aboard ship. They arrange to reunite six months later after Michel had a chance to earn a decent living.

“We’re headed into a rough sea, Michel.”

Though it was surpassed in popularity and status by McCarey’s very faithful remake, An Affair to Remember, Love Affair’s many charms have led to it being the underdog I want to root for out of the two. The story goes that McCarey wrote the movie for Irene Dunne, who he landed for the role of Terry, and Cary Grant, who was otherwise engaged with Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings in 1939 and passed. He ended up choosing French actor Charles Boyer for the male lead. A different type of guy altogether, he wasn’t as commanding as Grant would surely have been and his European attitude definitely lent itself to a different type of picture than the one McCarey was set on making. Hence his remake nearly 20 years later with Grant and, not Dunne, but Deborah Kerr, which still stands as one of the top romance films of all time. It’s a shame because what he ended up capturing with Love Affair, while maybe a different tone than intended, was something that should not be overlooked. There was a looseness to the story of Michel and Terry and I think the casual air that was threaded throughout wouldn’t have been possible with a name and face like Grant’s attached.

I noticed that the two character’s journeys here struck similar chords of Holger and Anita in Intermezzo from the same year, with both films exploring life’s great fork in the road that has whimsy, romance, and creative pursuits in one direction and financial concerns, commitment, and structure in the other. Despite a couple of other similarities between the two films, including a medical emergency that factors in, this was a much more enjoyable experience for me because it felt like a responsible type of forbidden love in the beginning and one you could actually support as it grows, as opposed to Intermezzo’s selfish union that tainted its characters. I bring up the comparison because Love Affair, for all its positive qualities, is at no point a unique work. I single out Intermezzo because I just saw it last week, but there are many films, a lot from this era especially, which contain similar themes and rely on many of the same tropes of the romance genre. Love Affair succeeds and perhaps stands out, though, by letting it all breathe with expert pacing and not taking any missteps with the story–a simple one that deserved to be told simply.

When you think of the concepts “classic” “cinema” “romance,” it could be practically any frame that features both Dunne and Boyer. It looked gorgeous, with no frills and a completely naturalistic feel throughout, especially the scenes on the great ship set and the trip to Michel’s grandmother near the Mediterranean. I’m tempted to partially join the gang that is unhappy with Charles Boyer in this, because it’s true that he was quite a subdued leading man for McCarey, a director that values depth of character and the genuine range of emotions that make up real people, not just characters. This sheds light on the mismatch of talent and also why the flame of Love Affair was still burning inside McCarey into the 1950s when he took another stab at it. In an interview he once said of Irene Dunne that, “You can really call her the ‘First Lady of Hollywood,’ because she’s the first real lady Hollywood has ever seen.” This came through on screen and Dunne did most of the heavy lifting in the film, ranging from her gorgeous musical numbers to the bubbly, carefree courtship period and then to her anguish-ridden scenes post accident. She has a reputation for being one of the most overlooked actresses of the ‘30s and ‘40s and I think I realize why now.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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