‘AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER’ (1957) – the 5th greatest romance of all time?

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Lately, I have been making a point of catching up on famous movies that, for various reasons, I never got around to seeing when they were released. I mainly watch them to see what all the fuss was about. Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember is one of those fifties romances that reportedly had theatre-goers diving into their handbags in search of handkerchiefs, desperate to dry their eyes before the lights were turned back on. The damn thing brought tears to my eyes, too, but for all the wrong reasons. A pity really, because I am a huge fan of both Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, but even they could not save this sugary, phony soapy. They gave it a darned good try but in the end the lousy screenplay, the insipid storyline and Leo McCarey’s mundane direction sunk them. The supporting cast didn’t help much either.

This was the second time around for the story. Back in 1939 Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer took a crack at it and evidently made a fair fist of things, picking up six Oscar nominations for their efforts, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Miss Dunne. Everybody went home empty-handed that night, but at least they were nominated. On that occasion the film’s title was Love Affair. This 1957 version landed only four nominations and they, too, were unsuccessful. Unbelievably, the American Film Institute voted this awful movie as the 5th greatest romance of all time. They must have been on drugs when they voted. Had to be.

Image result for an affair to remember cathleen nesbitt    Image result for Rupert Brooke Cathleen Nesbitt

Cathleen Nesbitt                                                                      Rupert Brooke

English-born actress Cathleen Nesbitt plays the grandmother of Cary Grant’s character, playboy Nickie Ferrante, even though in real life she was just 15 years older than him. In her long career she (somehow) racked up 95 screen credits between 1919 and 1981. In An Affair to Remember she is supposed to be the sweetest, most loveable grandmother on the planet, but unfortunately she had the screen presence of a potted plant. I can only assume that she was cast as Cary’s grandmother, instead of as his mother, in order to keep our minds off Cary’s age. She did have one historical claim to fame in her life, however. In her youth she was engaged to the ill-fated British poet Rupert Brooke who died at Gallipoli in April 1915 at the age of 28. He wrote the famous poem, ‘The Soldier’ – ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.’

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Lucille Ball and Richard Denning on radio

with ‘My Favorite Husband’

Richard Denning portrays the good-natured boyfriend of Deborah Kerr. By his own admission his career was ‘unspectacular’, but he managed to get enough work to live on without reaching any great heights along the way. The one chance he almost had to become a household name came (and went) in the early fifties. From 1948 to 1951 he had played Lucille Ball’s husband on radio in a popular series called ‘My Favorite Husband’. The series was such a success that CBS offered the couple a TV deal along the same lines. Lucy would be the star of the show, but she would only sign if her husband Desi Arnaz played opposite her in Denning’s role. ‘I Love Lucy’ became a long-running smash hit while Richard went back to bit parts for the rest of his career. For 43 years he was married to lovely Evelyn Ankers, the Universal star of lots of horror flicks who was known as ‘The Queen of the Screamers’.

For some ungodly reason it was decided to insert a couple of lousy songs into An Affair to Remember, along with a dozen or so the most homely kids in the history of Hollywood to sing them! Presumably, we were supposed to be enchanted by these heroically untalented tykes as they strove to project their annoying personalities into an endless string of close-ups. One tuneless song would have been bad enough. But two had me scurrying for the tissues, if only to plug my ears with them. And why on Earth did the director ask Deborah to suddenly burst into song with a couple of verses of the title song? And in French, no less. At least her singing was dubbed (as usual) by Marni Nixon, the same superb singer who handled her vocals in The King and I (1956).

I have lost count of the number of rave reviews I have read praising this movie, so I was truly expecting to see something out of the ordinary. Instead, I encountered scene after scene that simply did not gel. Like the two women at the bar who lean across with heads tilted to listen to Cary and Deborah chatting six inches away. Nobody does that. Then there was the idiotic scene in the ship’s dining room when everybody seated at their tables continually laugh out loud as the two lovers sit in separate booths pretending not to be together. Nobody does that either, yet in this silly scene everyone in the room kept laughing and laughing… There were other excruciating scenes as well, but you get the picture. No wonder the film failed to win any Oscars. But how on Earth did it accumulate four nominations in the first place?

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In retrospect, I think the most unforgiveable thing about this movie is its lack of a single sour note from anyone in it. From beginning to end not one nasty individual puts in an appearance. Everyone is so nice. Grandma is saccharine beyond belief. Cary is his usual affable self with everybody, even the autograph hunters. Butter simply would not dare melt in Deborah’s mouth, not even when she gets walloped by a car. The director even had her kneel in grandma’s private chapel and swamp a statue of the Virgin Mary in reverent, adoring looks – for about ten minutes! Her boyfriend of five years readily accepts her ditching him and is happy to nurse her through her injuries until she is fit enough to ditch him again!. Cary’s millionaire fiancée also cops it sweet when he ditches her and they remain good friends afterwards as well. I know it is only a movie but surely someone had to get peeved about something!

Nora Ephron’s 1993 romance, Sleepless in Seattle, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, drew shamelessly on An Affair to Remember, especially in its ending. It also utilized clips from the original and had the lead characters make reference to it. Whether by accident or design this led to a resurgence of interest in the 1957 picture that generated a further two million DVD sales of An Affair to Remember. A year later, Warren Beatty remade Love Affair using the original title. He and his wife Annette Bening played the lovers and he even convinced Katharine Hepburn to grace the screen one last time. She played the aunt, replacing the grandmother character from the two previous versions. There was even a Bollywood film released in 1999 that was almost a scene-by-scene copy of this picture. A number of television shows have woven the ‘meet me at the top of the Empire State Building at 7pm’ idea into an episode. In short, you can’t kill the thing with a stick! Personally, I wish somebody had killed it at birth back in ’39.

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