Synopsis: In this poignant and humorous love story nominated for four Academy Awards, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr meet on an ocean liner and fall deeply in love. Though each is engaged to someone else, they agree to meet six months later at the Empire State Building if they still feel the same way about each other. But a tragic accident prevents their rendezvous and the lovers’ future takes an emotional and uncertain turn.
eyelights: Deborah Kerr. the romantic contrivances bringing the pair together. the pair’s other partners.
eyesores: the clunky, nonsensical dialogues. the flat humour. its unrealistic situations.
“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories. We’ve already missed the spring!”
After watching ‘Sleepless in Seattle‘, one of my best friends and I were incredibly curious to watch ‘An Affair to Remember’, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. While, coincidentally enough, I had already planned to watch it subsequently, we had no idea (or had forgotten) that this 1957 romantic dramedy was so heavily featured in its 1994 cousin.
So we pencilled in a movie date to watch ‘An Affair to Remember’.
Released in 1957, Leo McCarey’s picture is actually a remake of his own ‘Love Affair’ from 1939, using pretty much the same script (it was also later remade as a Warren Beatty and Annette Benning vehicle in 1994). However, it’s this second iteration that is regarded as the classic, partly thanks to its resurgence after the success of ‘Sleepless in Seattle’.
Personally, I was mildly disappointed with ‘An Affair to Remember’. In light of its reputation as one of the most romantic films ever made (it’s number five on the AFI’s list of “America’s greatest love stories”) and the hoopla made about it in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’, I expected something clever and wondrous, maybe even something inspiring.
Alas, it was none of those things.
‘An Affair to Remember’ takes us on the ocean liner SS Constitution, which is taking playboy (and tabloid fodder) Nickie Ferrante to his fiancée in New York. On the ship, he meets Terry McKay and, after bumping into each other repeatedly, the pair become friends. Soon a romance blooms and they are forced to decide what their future will hold.
Although they clearly have deep affection for one another, Nickie is about to be married to a successful millionairess worth 600 million dollars, whereas Terry’s own fiancé is an honourable man who worships her. They’ve both got it good, but they want each other instead. And so they made the difficult choice of breaking off their engagements.
But fate had other plans…
(…which we will not discuss as it would contain a plague of spoilers. We would like to avoid the gross indiscretions of ‘Sleepless in Seattle’, which basically eviscerated the melodramatic heart of this film.)
The first thing that bothered me with ‘An Affair to Remember’ was the staging of the piece. From the bellhop taking a message to Nickie, shouting his name everywhere (to create artificial curiosity even though there were likely better ways to proceed) to the way that Nickie and Terry meet, with her passing by with his cigarette case…
…right in front of his cabin window.
(Ahem… coincidence, much?)
The next thing that floored me were the dialogues. Or, rather, Nickie and Terry’s banter, which was meant to be humourous but which sounded to me like a series of flat gags. The replies usually only barely made sense contextually – unless they were deeply rooted in period references I simply didn’t get. I sat there baffled by their exchanges.
Now, I have seen plenty of older comedies in which the repartee is side-splitting, including some of Cary Grant’s earlier comedies (ex: ‘His Girl Friday’ or ‘Arsenic and Old Lace‘), so I suspected that the problem wasn’t just the period in which it was made: It turns out that much of their dialogue was improvised by the stars and kept in the final picture.
Ah hah! That explains its somewhat disjointed quality.
Here’s an example of poor dialogue. At one point, Nickie tells Terry that “There must be something between us, even if it’s only an ocean”. Except that this would apply to pretty much anyone on the boat, so it’s not remarkable. Or clever. Further to this, it’s such a mundane reflection that it actually cheapens their connection instead of enhancing it.
Nickie is no Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, that’s for sure.
Anyway, enough about that.
On a more minor level are the fact that Nickie and Terry’s attraction isn’t properly established (yes, we can see they dig each other… but why? Is it due to their incomprehensible repartee?), and that Nickie is a self-evidently terrible catch: He’s about to get married and here he is cheating on his fiancée – so, how could Terry see any future there?
But, you know what? Most romantic films cut corners and expect us to suspend our disbelief for 90 minutes or more. Given the precedents, it wasn’t impossible for me to disregard these issues. But it did leave me slightly incredulous, especially in light of the staging and dialogues; it all made Nickie and Terry’s romance rather implausible.
Still, I enjoyed it. Cary Grant is always excellent, even when the material isn’t exactly up to snuff, and I found Deborah Kerr (whom I had only seen once before, in the woefully inept ‘Casino Royale‘) quite winsome – had she been fed better lines, I think she would have been a match for Grant. So the pair made up for the film’s weaknesses.
I also liked their characters. While their initial infidelity is despicable, the characters are otherwise well-intentioned and considerate of (most) others. I especially like that they unearth the best in each other, bringing such a dramatic shift in one another that they both go their own ways to rethink their way of life, making them more grounded.
That, to me, was laudable.
I also quite liked their partners, Richard Denning as Kenneth Bradley, and Neva Patterson as Lois Clark. The performances are pure class, as are the characters, who are both commendably understanding of their respective fiancé(e)s sudden change of heart. It’s not entirely realistic, but it’s mature and it’s an ideal that I love seeing on the screen.
Another aspect that made ‘An Affair to Remember’ worth seeing are the sets and locales; the picture looks splendid, particularly when they do a stopover in Italy to visit Nickie’s grandmother. Oh, sure, the sets look like sets instead of like location filming, but this is typical of the era and it didn’t bother me one bit. It might be a blight for others, however.
All in all, ‘An Affair to Remember’ is a decent enough romantic dramedy, and it is entertaining. But it’s also well over-rated and far more ineffectual than one might imagine given its stature. I have seen much better romantic films, funnier comedies and more poignant drama in many other places – and sometimes all at once as well.
It may not be that memorable, but I’m still glad that I’ve seen it.
Date of viewing: January 9, 2016