Love Affair (1939)
Directed by Leo McCarey
People who love the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age generally agree that 1939 was an annus mirabilis — a year absolutely filled with great movies of a very wide variety. When The Wizard of Oz is, say, your tenth-best work of the year, you know you’ve got some stiff competition!
I’m quite fond of the work of director Leo McCarey, and I think I have a sense of what animates many of his stories. It’s a virtue you don’t often find in an age of brashness, self-assertion, and flippancy. It’s called tact: a kind of touch, an ability to say the right thing at the right time, so as not to cause hurt to other people, or so as to put them at their ease. This kind of tact is a feature of charity, and it’s centrally important to our movie this week, Love Affair.
I don’t want to reveal to what extent McCarey, who not only directed the film but was one of the two writers of the screenplay, portrays a love that does not put itself forward, lest the beloved be hurt — and without the slightest touch, either, of self-satisfaction, as if you might say, “Look at me, look at how much I am going to sacrifice!” For this kind of charity also does not desire the spotlight. So, though I’m not going to give away the plot, I’ll only say that the main characters in Love Affair must learn to grow personally and morally as they fall in love with one another, a love that takes them somewhat by surprise. The man is a famous French playboy, Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer), who, as we learn in the opening news-scenes, is finally going to do his fellow men the favor of getting married and thus taking himself out of competition, and the woman is a former nightclub singer, Terry MacKay (Irene Dunne), who has a boyfriend quite devoted to her, and that should be all right, except that she is not really in love with him.
These are two people who have been playing at life rather than really living, but they meet one another by chance on an ocean liner, when the wind whips the letter he’s reading and sends it through an open porthole, and she’s on the other side, she picks it up, and — the flirtation begins. You cannot do this sort of thing better than Boyer and Dunne do it. And we begin to see also that there is more to each character than other people suspect, perhaps more than they themselves suspect. Marnet invites Terry to meet his grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya) back in France, and the old lady sees that Terry is right for her grandson, even though she is not French; and Terry sees that Michel is something other than a playboy. He’s a man with roots in a family and its land, and the religious faith that is a well of living waters for the old woman.
To be worthy of Terry, Michel must learn to earn a living by his own efforts — he’s a painter, and he’s very good at it. So he asks for some time to get himself established. They will meet again at a prescribed place and time. But something happens.
Irene Dunne is magnificent in all she does, and Charles Boyer could portray a man of deep and brooding sensitivity as well as anyone, because in fact that was how he was in real life. This film is perfect, and yet McCarey himself would direct a remake two decades later, in An Affair to Remember, with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. That too is a great movie, and the lead characters are superb. But see this one first!
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