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Film Friday: "An Affair to Remember" (1957)

This week on "Film Friday," I am celebrating Cary Grant's 112th birthday (which was on Monday) by telling you about one of my absolute favorites of his films. It has also been considered one of the most romantic films of all time by the American Film Institute.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Leo McCarey, An Affair to Remember (1957) tells the story of failed artist Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) and nightclub singer Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), who meet aboard a luxury liner headed for New York from Italy. They are instantly attracted to one another, even though they are both already engaged Nickie to socialite Lois Clark (Neva Patterson) and Terry to Kenneth Bradley (Richard Denning). They kindle their attraction by spending a romantic afternoon in Villefranche with Nickie's grandmother, Janou (Cathleen Nesbitt), who seems to think that Terry is the "right" woman for her grandson. Upon their return to the ship, the couple decide to leave their respective partners, start new careers and meet each other atop the Empire State Building in six months to marry.

On the day of their rendezvous, Terry, in her haste to reach the Empire State Building, is hit by a car while crossing the street. She is immediately rushed to the hospital, where she later learns that she is paralyzed from the waist and may never walk again. Nickie, however, does not know that Terry has been in an accident and believes that she has rejected him. Wanting to conceal her disability, Terry refuses to contact Nickie after the accident and instead finds work as a music teacher. For his part, Nickie pursues his talent as a painter and has his works displayed by an art dealer named Courbet (Fortunio Bonanova). Months later, after running into Terry at the ballet, Nickie finds her address and makes a surprise visit to her on Christmas Eve. Although he steers the conversation to make her explain her actions, Terry merely avoids the subject, never leaving the couch on which she sits. As he is departing, Nickie mentions a painting that he had been working on when they first met. He says that Courbet told him that a young, crippled woman admired the painting with such fervor that he instructed the art dealer to give it to her. Finally comprehending that Terry was that woman, Nickie walks into her bedroom and, seeing the painting, is confronted with the painful truth of her condition. Now knowing that she did not purposedly stood him up, Nickie tearfully embraces Terry, as they both realize that their love for each other still endures after all this time.

Terry McKay: Oh, it was nobody's fault but my own! I was looking up... It was the closest thing to heaven! You were there... Oh, darling! Don't, don't worry, darling. If you can paint, I can walk. Anything can happen, don't you think?

In his prime, comedy mastermind Leo McCarey teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, guided the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933) and won his first Academy Award directing Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in the screwball classic The Awful Truth (1937). By 1938, however, the public was losing interest in screwball comedy and McCarey saw himself facing a dilemma in coming up with an idea for his next picture. His wife Stella suggested they take a European vacation so he could "recharge his creative batteries," but the trip was not successful. Returning to America by ocean liner, he was inspired by a film idea just as their ship approached the Statue of Liberty. Turning to Stella, McCarey said: "Suppose you and I were talking to each other when the boat sailed from England and we got to know each other on the trip. We felt ourselves inseparable. By the time the trip was over, we were madly in love with each other, but by the time the boat docked we have found out that each other is obliged to somebody else."

Back in Hollywood, McCarey developed the story with popular writer Mildred Cram, before handing the screenplay over to Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart, who then turned out what become Love Affair (1939). With McCarey's hit track record, several prominent actresses of the time, including Greta Garbo and Helen Hayes, expressed interest in playing the female lead, Terry McKay. The director, however, opted for his favorite actress, Dunne, a choice strongly supported by his wife, also a major Irene fan. The male lead, named Michel Marnet, was offered to Charles Boyer, "one of early sound cinema's great European lovers." The final result was a massive commercial and critical hit, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Story, Best Art Direction, Best Song, Best Actress for Dunne and Best Supporting Actress for Maria Ouspenskaya, cast as Boyer's grandmother.

Grant and Kerr as Nickie and Terry
After enjoying over two decades as one of Hollywood's top directors, McCarey's career stalled in the mid-1950s following the box-office failure of his anti-Communist thriller My Son John (1952), starring Robert Walker, Helen Hayes and Van Heflin. In addition, a serious car accident had left him in poor health, addicted to pain killers and alcohol. Struck by the number of people who had called Love Affair "the best love story they have ever seen," McCarey decided to attempt a comeback with a remake of his romance classic. This was also an opportunity for him to confirm if he was still as good a writer and director as he had been in earlier years.

McCarey recruted the original Love Affair writers, Daves and Stewart, to help him pen the script for the newly titled An Affair to Remember. Stewart, however, was not credited in the final film, as he had been a member of the Hollywood Ten and was still backlisted following the HUAC hearings. Independent producer Jerry Wald offered McCarey financial backing to remake his own picture, modernized by color and widescreen cinematography, on the condition that he sign Cary Grant to play the male lead, whose name was changed to Nickie Ferrante. This was the first of a two-movie deal Grant had made with Wald that was in turn part of the producer's new multipicture deal with 20th Century Fox. Grant, who was an old and loyal friend of McCarey, immediately accepted the part, though he was initally slightly apprehensive about playing a role that had been originated by Boyer.

Nickie and Terry during their stop in Villefranche-sur-Mer
Wald hoped to reteam Grant with Ingrid Bergman, attempting to capture some of the on-screen sizzle that had rocketed Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) to the top of the box-office. Bergman, however, was living in Europe at the time and refused the offer. Wald and McCarey then considered Doris Day, before ultimately deciding on Deborah Kerr, Grant's co-star in Sidney Sheldon's Dream Wife (1953) and later in Stanley Donen's The Grass Is Greener (1960). By 1957, the Scottish-born Kerr was one of the most in-demand and admired leading ladies in Hollywood. In fact, she was awarded a Gold Medal by Photoplay as the most famous actress of the year based on a poll by readers of several popular movie magazine of the time. An Affair to Remember marked the second film in which Kerr took over a role previously played by Irene Dunne; the first was The King and I (1956), the musical version of Dunne's Anna and the King of Siam (1946).

To recreate the role originated by Maria Ouspenskaya, that of grandmother Janou, McCarey selected Cathleen Nesbitt, whose first Hollywood film was Jean Negulesco's Best Picture nominee Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). Although Nesbitt was playing Grant's grandmother, she was actually only 15 years older than the actor. Kerr and Nesbitt had briefly worked together in the late 1940s in a London production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and had not seen each other in almost 20 years. The two enjoyed a long friendship after appearing in An Affair to Remember and reunited on the screen the following year in Delbert Mann's critically acclaimed drama Separate Tables (1958). Richard Denning, better known for his work in a series of second-rate science fiction films in the late 1940s and 1950s, was cast as Kenneth Bradley, while Neva Patterson, whose screen credits include The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) and Desk Set (1957), appeared as Lois Clark.

Grant and Kerr on the set
Once the cast was complete, McCarey seemed enthusiastic for the prospect of his new production to be filmed in CinemaScope, Fox's widescreen process. But not long before shooting started in mid-February 1957, McCarey's optimism was challenged when Grant began complaining about the project. He was furious when he learned that budget cuts had forced the film to be entirely shot on a Fox soundstage and that McCarey had made a few changes to the script (the director later agreed to reinstate the original material). Grant also objected to the buttons on the cabin boy's uniforms, saying that they were wrong for the Queen Mary, and refused to resume his work until they were corrected.

Grant, who was then married to actress Betsy Drake, was going through a tough time after Sophia Loren, his co-star in Stanley Kramer's The Pride and the Passion (1957), had reportedly turned down his marriage proposal. He was often nervous and continued making trouble throughout the filming of An Affair to Remember. The only person who seemed to be able to calm him down was Kerr. The two stars got along so well that they even found a way to improvise bits of comedy in their scenes together, something that McCarey eagerly encouraged. Kerr called Grant "master of the throwaway line," adding, "It was our most successful work together. Cary was not only the king of the 'double take,' but a superb ad-libber as well. He and I ad-libbed a lot on the film and Leo McCarey kept them on the finished film [...] It was also on this movie that I saw how Cary had an eye for details in every aspect of the movie being made."

Grant and Kerr on a break from filming
During production on An Affair to Remember, one of the cameraman shooting a close-up of Grant noticed a lump on his forehead. Grant said it was a permanent bruise he had acquired during his USO tours, when he had to wear a steel helmet that did not fit right, but he had been habitually rubbing it for years, causing it to swell. The studio insisted he have it looked at and after a battery of tests, it was diagnosed as a benign tumor. He arranged to have it removed upon completion of production and before the start of his next film, another Wald project, Donen's Kiss Them For Me (1957). 

Although An Affair to Remember was not a musical, Kerr's role as a nightclub singer required her to perform four songs. Taking into consideration the beautiful results achieved on The King and I, a representative from Fox hired soprano Marni Nixon to dub Kerr's voice in the film. This time, however, Kerr decided not to take part in the song rehearsal process; she simply adopted Nixon's vocal acting and made it her own on screen. The outcome was so perfect that it was announced that Kerr and Grant would record a full duet version of Harry Warren's title song. Although an official soundtrack album was in fact released by Philips Records, no duet by the stars was included; Vic Damone instead sang the number that topped the charts in 1957 and has since become a jazz standard. Kerr's own singing voice can only be heard in "The Tiny Scout," which she performed with a children's choir.

An Affair to Remember received generally positive reviews from critics upon its premiere at the Roxy Theatre in New York on July 19, 1957. Approving of the use of "comedy lines, music, color and CinemaScope," Variety called An Affair to Remember "a winning film that is alternately funny and tenderly sentimental" and praised the on-screen chemistry between Grant and Kerr. The notoriously stuffy Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, on the other hand, was not as enthusiastic. Although he considered that this reworking of Love Affair "provides plenty of humorous conversation that is handled crisply in the early reels by Mr. Grant and Miss Kerr," he also thought that the second half of the film was absurd and hard to believe. In addition, Crowther deemed the film overly long compared to its predecessor and described McCarey's direction as "unpropitiously and unaccountably slow."

At the 30th Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1958, An Affair to Remember received nominations for Best Song, Best Cinematography, Best Score and Best Costume Design. Deborah Kerr was also a nominee that night, but for John Huston's World War II drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). In 2002, the AFI named An Affair to Remember the fifth greatest love story in American film history, behind only Casablanca (1942), Gone with the Wind (1939), West Side Story (1960) and Roman Holiday (1953). In contrast, Love Affair, although chosen as one of 400 nominees, failed to make it into the top 100 of the same list.

Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2009) | Deborah Kerr: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2010) | Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood by Wes D. Gehring (2006) | IMDb | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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