When directors remake their own movies, part 2 – McCarey and the Affair

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a comparison between Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds and his own remake of the film, named Floating Weeds two decades later.

Today, I’m sharing my thoughts about Leo McCarey’s 1939 classic Love Affair and his even better known remake An Affair to Remember from 1957.

The 1939 original featured superstars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Ms. Dunne had recently acted in the hit screwball comedy The Awful Truth opposite Cary Grant. Mr. Boyer had just appeared as the gangster Pepe Le Moko – one of his most famous screen roles – in the film Algiers (a remake of French film Pepe Le Moko). Love Affair was a critical and commercial success, getting nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Story, Best Actress (Irene Dunne) and Best Supporting Actress (Maria Ouspenskaya).

In the film, Charles Boyer plays well-known French playboy Michel Marnet, who has been recently engaged to an heiress and is on an ocean liner making a transatlantic trip to New York. On board, he meets a beautiful and witty American night club singer Terry McKay, who also has been recently engaged. She is well aware of Marnet’s reputation, but perhaps because of his recent engagement, she considers it ‘safe’ to spend the evenings having dinner with him and engaging in a fair amount of light-hearted flirting. Their snappy dialogue and smart one-liners was very typical of romantic films of that era.

About 20 minutes into the movie, the ship has a brief stopover at the island of Madeira, off Portugal. Michel goes ashore to pay a visit to his grandmother who has been living on the island for several years; on the way up to her house, he bumps into Terry and invites her to tag along. I think it’s brilliant how the scriptwriters wove this act into the story and made it (in my opinion) the emotional cornerstone of the film. This is where the flirting transforms into love. It seems that everything at grandma’s place conspires to make this change happen (mainly in Terry’s mind) – the peaceful surroundings, Michel’s warm and affectionate relationship with his graceful and gracious grandmother, the chapel on the grounds which Terry briefly steps into with Michel and finally grandma’s not so subtle hints to Terry that she’s the one to make an honest man out of her Michel. The chapel scene in particular is almost magical – the lighting and the music seems to give a sort of spiritual endorsement to their relationship.

At the end of the ocean crossing, they decide to give each other 6 months to consider their future together and promise to meet at the top of the Empire State Building. Unfortunately, Terry has an accident on the way and Michel waits at the top in vain – this is the scene that Sleepless in Seattle paid homage to more than 50 years later with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Eventually, the Terry and Michel are reunited in a tearful, happy ending with the famous lines spoken by Terry “I was looking up, it was the nearest thing to heaven…you were there” and then less romantically, “If you can paint, I can walk; anything can happen, don’t you think?”

The 1957 version features Cary Grant and Deborah Carr. At this time, Cary Grant had already been a superstar for two decades and Deborah Kerr too was at her peak with mega-hits like From Here to Eternity and The King and I earlier in the decade. The film was shot in colour of course and was made with a much bigger budget than the original. With a much-loved story and two famous leads, it was a guaranteed hit. It also went on to garner 4 Oscar nominations, although these were all in the less prestigious technical categories.

McCarey kept it simple and went for a remake that was almost identical shot-for-shot and line-for-line (he used the same script as the original); one key change is that Cary Grant’s character becomes an American, Nicky Ferrante. The main difference between the two films is the way the characters behave and this alone gives the remake a very different tone from the original. For instance, in the final scene, Deborah Kerr takes out her handkerchief and wipes Cary Grant’s tears, before wiping her own. In 1939, there were no tears from Charles Boyer (he would have been too macho to cry!). This is perhaps representative of the difference between the 2 versions – Charles Boyer was the epitome of suave and Irene Dunne was as sassy as they came in the 1930’s. Their screen personas in Love Affair were consistent with how romantic leads interacted with each other in those days – lots of witty dialogue and repartee. Although Cary Grant had an equally suave and debonair screen persona, he and Deborah Kerr are less poised, more expressive and seem more vulnerable in the remake. Was this because the director asked them to be so, or was it just the more informal film making style of the 50’s showing through? I’m not sure, but I do know that this made the 1957 characters more relatable. The only exception to this is grandma Janou – Maria Ouspenskaya delivers a far more touching and impactful performance in 1939 compared to that of Cathleen Nesbitt in 1957.

So, overall I prefer the 1957 remake, but script and the scenes are identical between the two films, the viewer is able to focus on the actors/ characters and each film is enjoyable in its own way.


When directors remake their own movies, part 1 – Ozu and Floating Weeds

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I recently finished watching Criterion Collection’s Yasujiro Ozu double header – his 1934 B&W silent film A Story of Floating Weeds and the 1959 colour remake, simply titled Floating Weeds. Watching them back-to-back marked the first time I had done so with a movie and its remake. It gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast the two works; how changing times and social mores, the film maker’s own experiences over 20+ years and the availability of new film making technology affected the way the telling of the story changes over time.

The plot, as with all Ozu plots, is simple. A traveling Kabuki troupe, led by a veteran actor (these itinerant actors are the “floating weeds” of society) returns to a small town after a gap of several years. As they settle in for a few weeks of performances, it is revealed that the actor’s old lover and their illegitimate teenage son live in this town. The actor has stayed in touch with the mother over the years, even providing for the son’s education, with the boy believing him to be an uncle. During the troupe’s off hours, he slips off to relax at their house, reminiscing with his ex-lover and trying to build a bond with the young man. But on this trip, the lead actress in the troupe is his mistress and when she finds about his secret ‘family’, she sets out to disrupt their harmony. This is a typical Ozu gendai-geki (family drama), and as with all his films, it is about inter-generational conflict – frequently passive – and the consequent fragility of the nuclear family, itself a relatively recent 20th century import from the West.

The 1934 film is fat-free. Ozu, always an economical director and a master of ellipsis, is particularly spare at this early stage of his career. He doesn’t show every event on screen. The viewer is allowed to fill in what has happened between one scene and the next. Also, the fact that it’s a silent film (there are occasional dialogue cards) means that there is no time wasted on long-winded conversations. All this makes for a brisk running time of 86 minutes.

The 1959 remake is identical in terms of structure and plot, but differs in form. The setting is changed from the countryside to seaside. And of course, there’s dialogue – they end up saying a lot more to each other than they did in the original film – making for longer scenes and a longer movie of 119 minutes. There is colour and interestingly, I found it to be a more vivid palette than in Ozu’s other colour films; is this because Ozu worked with a different cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and not with his regular guy, Yuharu Atsuta? I can’t say, as I’ve only seen Miyagawa’s B&W films (Rashomon, Sansho the Bailiff and Yojimbo).

The 1959 story takes place in contemporary times and this means it is a more ‘open’ society, more explicit about illicit relationships and sex. For example, there is a sub-plot involving 3 actors from the troupe who trawl the town looking for female company. One of them tries unsuccessfully to flirt with a barber’s daughter. All three eventually end up at a bar and make the acquaintance of a couple of seasoned prostitutes – one with bad teeth and loud manners, but a genuinely friendly demeanour; the other is attractive, but cold and mercenary in her behaviour. All this is missing from the 1930’s original and while it’s entirely realistic and the scenes are interesting, it seemed to me to be an unnecessary – almost crass – distraction.

It’s not just the behaviour of these side characters; even the main characters seem simpler and more likeable in the original. In the 1959 version, they are all ever so slightly meaner, more calculating, more worldly wise. I don’t know if this is just a natural reflection of the times, or the choice of actors or something specifically called out by the director.

All the above comparisons may imply that I prefer the original and overall, that’s true. But I do appreciate the remake for the superior visual impact delivered on screen through the use of colour and the improved production design and set decoration, resulting from a larger budget.

The one consistent aspect of both films is Ozu’s famous ‘tatami shot’ technique, with the camera placed on the floor and shooting at the level of the actors’ waist. Ozu’s camera almost never zooms or pans. He doesn’t use fancy transitions like wipes or fades to go from one shot to the other, always a simple cut. Also, the opening title/ credits section is always shot against the backdrop of a sack cloth. Ozu never changed his style throughout his career and so, watching his movies with its familiar actors, settings, tight framing and geometric composition is cinematic comfort food for his fans.

So this story, brought to life in these two films separated by more than two decades of changing social standards, by the use of colour and sound and with a different set of actors, is still recognizable as having come from the hands and mind of the same creator. With Ozu, the focus is always on people and their relationships, on the fear of loneliness and on the poignancy of living and loving and growing old.