AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957)

  • Director: Leo McCarey            
  • Writers: Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Leo McCarey, based on the screenplay for Love Affair by  Leo McCarey and Mildred Cram
  • Starring: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning, Neva Patterson, and Cathleen Nesbitt
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#74), 4 Oscar nominations (Best Original Score, Best Original Song – “An Affair to Remember,” Best Cinematography, Best Costumes)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

My prior understanding of An Affair to Remember came entirely from Sleepless in Seattle, which repeatedly references this movie (and shows bits from the movie on various TVs), with several characters calling it one of the most romantic movies ever made. Sleepless in Seattle also took the idea of its romantic climax (two lovers meeting each other on top of the Empire State Building at a certain time) directly from An Affair to Remember, though in the former the romantic climax just happens as planned and our two leads kiss, while in the latter the meeting goes wrong and Cary Grant is left waiting there for hours. Certainly, the latter is a more interesting choice, but it opens up An Affair to Remember to a third act that is even more melodramatic than most of its peers, in a way I found especially off-putting and made whatever appeal the movie might have had for me sort of fall apart by the end.

There have been some complaints in recent years about the death of the romantic comedy, though in reality they’re still around, they’ve just mostly moved to streaming for various reasons. If we concede that romantic comedies are rarer today, however, far rarer than that are romantic dramas like An Affair to Remember. It has various amusing bits, but I don’t think anyone involved would have thought of it as a comedy. Honestly, that it was enjoyable as it was for me is sort of a miracle that I’d chalk up to the exceptionally light touch brought by popular director Leo McCarey, near the end of a long directing career that included Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, and Going My Way. In fact, An Affair to Remember is almost a scene-for-scene remake of a movie McCarey had directed 18 years earlier, Love Affair, which had starred Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. McCarey is remaking his own movie here. This actually wasn’t that unusual in this specific period of film history, where several movies were made initially by a director in black and white and remade several years later in color, often with the same director or other crew. Hitchcock did it with his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example.

I find myself, then, not totally sure what to make of An Affair to Remember. In terms of what actually happens, it’s very melodramatic, but in another sense, everyone is very reserved and friendly with each other about everything, no matter how dramatic the actual events are. This is a story about two lead characters, played by Grant and the great red-headed English actress Deborah Kerr (who I would basically watch in anything at this point), who are both involved with other people when they meet on a Mediterranean cruise (where each of them is on their own) and quickly fall for each other. The movie feels the need to make clear that nothing “happens” beyond kissing (and even then we only see the couple’s feet, in such a way that we figure out what’s going on). 

Upon the ship’s return to New York, they agree to both attempt to end things with their respective significant others and meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building. Both extricate themselves from their relationships and look forward to the meeting, but Kerr is struck by a car crossing the street in front of the building, because she was looking up in anticipation of meeting Grant, leaving him to wait for her in vain. She ends up in the hospital, calling the name of Grant’s character dramatically, and is told that it will be a long time before she can walk again. She then refuses to tell Grant or even contact him until she “gets better,” for reasons that I think she says out loud once as, “It wouldn’t be fair to him,” and never made a lick of sense to me. Considering this is the essential plot conceit of a decent portion of the movie, the fact that I find the character motivations impenetrable is kind of a problem.

I kind of found it refreshing that as our two leads are falling for each other, the movie does not see the need to give either of the pre-existing significant others (played by Richard Denning and Neva Patterson) any flaws whatsoever. We never see either of these people ever being anything other than 100% supportive, to the point that they don’t really have other personality traits. In a way, this is kind of a larger flaw with the movie. Its two leads are very charismatic, but none of the characters seem to me to be particularly well-drawn. Grant is initially introduced as a famous international playboy, but later in the movie he’s just like painting signs and needs money? I missed what was happening there. Kerr is some sort of singer (Grant’s character has heard of her when they first meet), and we do see her singing once (Kerr’s voice was dubbed by the great Marni Nixon), but there’s never any discussion about her career or long-term goals, or either of their likes and dislikes. The big indicator that they’re meant to be together seems to be that she gets along with his grandma (Cathleen Nesbitt). Compare this to how well we get to know the lead characters in, oh, let’s say Sleepless in Seattle? To make a movie like this work you have to get me to actually care about the characters, and An Affair to Remember seems to think I’m going to care about them because they’re Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and just coasts from there.

I mean, as such assumptions go, it’s not a terrible one, because they both are awfully charismatic. And in a few early scenes where we watch them easily getting along it’s genuinely fun to watch. But it’s hard for me to get down into the nitty gritty with An Affair to Remember because it failed to work on basic movie levels for me. Thought the movie itself was a remake, it remains the most famous version of this story to date. The story was actually remade again in 1994, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening (a movie that is mostly forgotten except for its status as the last on-screen appearance of Katherine Hepburn, who played the grandmother character). There have also been not one but two Bollywood adaptations, as well as versions of the story in Turkish and Telugu. There is something about the basic set-up that strikes a chord, though it’s obviously a chord outside my own hearing range. Anyway, my personal favorite little bit about this movie was a running joke on 30 Rock in which one of the hit movie’s of Tracy Morgan’s comedian character’s filmography was a “Black version” of the movie called A Blaffair to Rememblack, which is one of those extremely stupid jokes that makes me laugh every time.

2 thoughts on “AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957)

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