Saturday, March 22, 2008

LOVE AFFAIR, Unluckiest Movie Of All Time

TCM ran Leo McCarey's Love Affair the other day, which reminded me that I'm not sure which of the many public-domain versions of this film to buy. Can anyone recommend a DVD of Love Affair that has decent picture/sound quality?

When I say Love Affair is the unluckiest movie of all time, I'm talking about what happened to it many years after it was released. This film really should have become one of the great classics of all time, since it has everything: one memorable scene after another, two great lead performances (Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer) and one equally memorable supporting performance (Maria Ouspenskaya). But the same director remade it as An Affair To Remember, and he remade it almost line-for-line and scene-for-scene. And since Love Affair fell into the public domain, it couldn't get the kind of exposure that it might have gotten had it been part of a studio library. (I know that It's a Wonderful Life became more popular because of its public-domain status but that doesn't usually happen. Most of the time a movie that falls into the public domain gets a bit devalued because it circulates in such terrible prints.) Which means that all the great scenes from Love Affair are best-known to the public in their Affair To Remember incarnations, and Love Affair, which should be known as a masterpiece, is instead mostly known as the trial run for AATR.

I think AATR is a good movie, but Love Affair is much better. The casting, for one thing, is better. Grant and Kerr are fine in AATR (Grant in particular is way better than he usually was in the '50s, an example of how much more he gave when he had a director he respected) but they are both a little bit miscast. These are parts that were tailored to Boyer and Dunne, the charming Continental playboy and the spunky American singer. Cathleen Nesbitt can't compete with Maria Ouspenskaya in the original, either. And while McCarey's technique is very much the same in both films -- he has the basic dialogue and blocking but he lets the actors improvise bits of business and delivery, and tries to make the scenes come out as natural as possible -- everything in the remake is just a little more formal and souped-up than the original. The ending is a sure-fire tear-jerker both times, but in the original, Boyer and Dunne are so natural together that you almost feel, as in all of McCarey's best movies, that they're not really "acting." And there's a bit more comedy cutting through the sentiment even here: look at the reaction shot of Boyer when Dunne tells him "if you can paint, I can walk."

Because it was remade, Love Affair's uniqueness has been de-valued a bit, but it really is an extraordinary combination: a romantic comedy combined with tearjerker soap opera combined with religious drama combined with elements of the musical. I can't think of an American director other than McCarey who could have brought off this mish-mash and made it all feel organic and somehow real. The remake is good, but the seams show: the elements don't cohere.

This brings us to the fact, as a commenter once pointed out here, that Irene Dunne was a very unlucky movie star in that many of her best films were remade starring other people. When studios remade an older film, they tended to withdraw it from circulation for a while so as not to create comparisons. (And when MGM remade Show Boat they bought Dunne's version from Universal just so they could prevent it from being reissued.) She was one of the greatest stars of her time, certainly the most versatile, but the fact that so many of her movies were un-promoted for so long made her more obscure than she ought to be.


Anonymous said...

Irene Dunne was a freelance star (after an early contract with RKO) and while she was one of the highest paid actresses of her time she hopped from studio to studio to make her pictures. This also hurt her come Academy Awards time as she never really had the full backing of a studio to push her to a win - she was nominated 5 times for Best Actress.

The fact that she was never given an honorary award by the AMPAS is a black mark against them. I don't know the reason for this as she was beloved by her male co-stars, immensely popular in Hollywood and was a great philanthropic force in Los Angeles for many years.

Anonymous said...

Incredible film, and it is a damn shame it isn't more appreciated. Generally most involved tend to be undervalued these days, McCarey is beginning to assure some respect in recent years and even so, he's still forgotten. Dunne and Boyer are among the best actors of their generation, but again they're easily forgotten compared to some of their co-stars. Both rarely (if ever) turned out bad performances, and had wonderful sense of romance and comedy. Together they were bliss, their talents at their height and an incredible chemistry... it's a truly remarkable film. I hope more people go out and see this little seen classic.