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.

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