An Affair to Remember

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By James Bowman

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This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called Isn’t It Romantic? Romance at the Movies, 1934-1989 at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend). The fifth film in the series was An Affair to Remember (1957), by Leo McCarey, shown on July 15th. Before the screening, I spoke as follows:

Last week, when we were talking about David Lean’s Brief Encounter, I neglected to mention one theory about that movie that you often hear mentioned these days. Lean was a protégé of Noel Coward’s and got his start as a director while co-directing with him the great wartime drama In Which We Serve. Lean’s next three directorial outings, including Brief Encounter were all based on Coward plays. As everyone in our enlightened times now knows, Noel Coward was a homosexual of the “closeted” variety. Here, as some critics suppose, in his play “Still Life” and Brief Encounter which was based on it, was Coward’s suitably encoded cri de coeur at having to hide his love away, and therefore a disguised protest at the sort of bourgeois morality that may be supposed to have thwarted his own sexual fulfilment — as it did that of Laura and Alec in his fiction. I think just the opposite is the case. So far from blaming bourgeois morality for having to be a closeted gay, I think that he remained a closeted gay just because he really believed in bourgeois morality and the social order it served.

Several of his great plays and movies of the 1930s and 1940s, including In Which We Serve but also Cavalcade and This Happy Breed, are overtly patriotic and in many ways paeans to the repressive (as they so often seem to us today) mores and customs not only of British middle class family life but those of the working class as well. The romances in these movies, like the one in Brief Encounter always portray the lovers more as social beings than as individuals and their marriages in the context of some family group, including the family of the ship in In Which We Serve. This sort of wide focus seems to go with the overt patriotism of these films. In the same way, the real values of Brief Encounter, as of the play, are centered not in the passionate longing which is brought to the fore again and again, especially with Rachmaninoff’s music, but with the restraint, the repression, the manners, which are all part of the same complex of bourgeois morality. When Laura says that Alec “behaved beautifully” in his politeness to the busybody Dolly Messiter, it is the only thing about him that she does describe as beautiful.

This aspect of Brief Encounter brings us to this week’s movie, which is Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember of 1957. What the two films have in common, I think, is the idea that love is bound up with the character of the lovers and that is in turn bound up with their social context. Character is of course what keeps Alec and Laura from consummating their passion, and I think it is not possible to understand the film without understanding that this is meant to be a good thing. But their self-denial is part of a much wider complex of social obligations that includes everything from their respective marriage vows to the manners required by their brief encounter with Dolly. As in Jane Austen’s Emma, the lovers’ test of character is in how they behave to someone they don’t like, and they both pass it easily — as, by the way, Emma does not. In An Affair to Remember, politeness is also important, though it is interesting that Cary Grant’s Nickie Ferrante seems to be exempted from the ordinary social obligations when it comes to celebrity hangers-on like Ned Hathaway, played by Charles Watts, or Robert Q. Lewis, the leering TV interviewer. Or is his behavior to these repellant characters meant to be criticized?

The social context here is partly provided by Nickie’s grandmother Janou, played by Cathleen Nisbett, in Villefranche. It is on their visit to her that Deborah Kerr’s Terry McKay first realizes that she is falling in love with Nickie — and from his grandmother’s affinity for her that he first realizes he is falling in love with Terry. But the more important aspect of character and social context involved in Nickie’s romance with Terry is subtextual, as it had to be in the days of the Hays Code. The subtext is that Terry is the mistress of the rich businessman, Ken, played by Richard Denning — what at the time they called a “kept woman” — and therefore damaged goods in the romantic market. Cary Grant himself is a gigolo whose current fiancée, Lois Clark (Neva Patterson) appears to be only the latest in a string of rich women who have afforded him the luxury, as he confesses, of never having had to work a day in his life, but the “double standard,” as we still call it, made this much less damaging to him

In fact, it is the source of most of the film’s comedy. Cary Grant is clearly playing off his own reputation as a sex symbol, going back to his appearance with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong of 1933, one of the last of the pre-Hays Code pictures. Now, at age 53 he still looked good — as he did to the end of his life in 1986 — but had been so long associated in the public eye with matinee idol good looks and the supposed sexual success resulting from them that there had to be a self-consciously ironic, even proto-postmodern purpose in presenting his Nickie Ferrante as a celebrity playboy whom all the women on the ship and off it are dying to be near. In any case, it was an easy sell for him to portray an aging Lothario, now jaded by sexual conquest and looking for a last chance at true love. In real life, he was on his third wife at the time but had just come off a passionate affair with Sophia Loren, who had lost interest in him and chosen Carlo Ponti instead. At the time of An Affair to Remember, there is reason to think that he saw himself as having lost the love of his life, which must add a note of poignancy to the conversation of Nickie and Terry, after the visit to his grandmother, when they realize that “we changed our course today” and talk about its being their last chance for love — now or never — and having “already missed the spring!”

One of the virtues of the Hays Code was that by forcing the movie to be vague and no more than suggestive about the characters’ sexual history, it removed at least some of the temptation for the audience to be pruriently curious like Robert Q. Lewis. Instead, it helps to bring forward this idea of character as an element of romance and associates Terry and Nickie with a more general idea, applying equally to those who are not mistresses or gigolos, that lovers need to be morally worthy of each other — and that this is more a matter of resolution and future good behavior than it is of the sexual past. That is associated with the film’s ridicule of the incipient celebrity culture of the television age, represented by the oleaginous Robert Q. Lewis whose show, “House to House,” is a sort of embryonic version of “Entertainment Tonight” or “Access Hollywood.”

One of the best jokes in the movie comes when Lewis is interviewing Nickie together with Lois, his rich fiancée and asks him, “Is this your first experience of connubial bliss?”

“Would you mind re-phrasing the question?” Nickie asks him politely. Lois explains that he only meant to use a common, indeed, clichéd genteelism for marriage. “Oh, so that’s what he meant,” says Nickie, thus calling attention to the slimy newsman’s prurient intentions which he had thought to disguise with a bit of pseudo-elegant journalese.

I’m afraid that the film goes rather badly off the rails after this. Terry’s job teaching music to what are meant to be seen as slum-dwelling children is
too pat and unbelievable and as sentimental as the two songs we associate with the children, the one about listening to your conscience and the other the same saccharine ditty that Terry sang in the Boston supper-club just before going to her fateful meeting with Nickie in New York. To have her — really Marnie Nixon, who dubbed Deborah Kerr’s singing voice just as she did that of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady — warbling in her fake Irish accent How do you get to Tomorrowland?/Close your eyes, make a wish, and you’re there is to go against the whole narrative impetus of the film, which tells us that getting to Tomorrowland is an altogether more difficult, laborious and even heart-breaking process.

Even so, her career as the beloved teacher of angelic (and talented) slum-children is way more believable than Nickie’s as a painter, which flies in the face of the audience’s difficulty not only in taking Cary Grant seriously in this role but in regarding the few glimpses of his paintings that we see as evidence either of aesthetic or of commercially exploitable talent. Here McCarey’s decision to make the film play off of the real-life Cary Grant’s reputation as a sex symbol returns to bite him in the back. It might have been better to have left Nickie as the sign-painter and billboard artist he briefly becomes — with a humorous reference in the ad to the beer that he said he could learn to drink instead of champagne — before his successes in the art market. But I doubt that this could have been made much more believable.

But there is a great recovery at the end, and here I have to mention the difficulty some critics have had in understanding why Terry refuses to let Nickie know the reason for her failing to keep their appointment at the top of the Empire State building. This never seemed a problem for me, but I have heard others describe the plot detail as a stumbling block and even frankly unbelievable. Maybe that’s why in Sleepless in Seattle, where An Affair to Remember serves as a constant point of reference for the romantically inclined Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan at opposite ends of the country, it is said that “Men never get this movie.” Come to think of it, I remember only men complaining of the implausibility. There may or may not be something peculiarly feminine in Deborah Kerr’s act of self-sacrifice — something associated with the pedestal that Cary Grant twice refers to the women in his life as occupying and that is visually present in the Empire State Building. Yet, as it happens, I know of an exactly parallel case but with the sexes reversed.

This was a former teaching colleague of mine in England who, at around the time that Brief Encounter was celebrating the Englishman’s sense of duty, had returned from the war, started his teaching career and become engaged to be married when, during a game of cricket, he was struck in the face by a ball which shattered his glasses, sending shards of glass into both eyes. He was blinded for life. It seemed to him the decent thing to do to write to his fiancée, breaking off their engagement on some pretext and declining to see her again, since he understood that if she knew the true story of what had happened to him she would feel constrained to go through with the marriage as a matter of duty. She had signed up to be a wife, not nursemaid to a blind man, and he didn’t think it was fair to her to put this extra burden upon her, especially when social pressure would have made it difficult if not impossible for her to decline it. Happily, she made inquiries, found out the truth and insisted that she be allowed to make her own mind up to do the noble thing, which she duly did — even though that in many ways transferred the moral burden of the sacrifice to him.

Iwould like to think that we can still applaud this sense of duty and understand what it has to do with love, but I am afraid that we have grown too used to thinking of love as an entitlement to be able to take it sufficiently seriously as an obligation. As a radio advertisement I heard recently for the Boston Medical Center put it: “You are entitled to a healthy sex life. Everybody is.” Even in 1957, Leo McCarey flinches a little at the idea of real sacrifice, real hardship, real dutifulness by suggesting in the final frames that Terry will soon be as good as new again. “Anything can happen,” she says rapturously in her best “Tomorrowland” spirit of optimism.

Part of me wants to say that the miracle of their finding each other just in time to salvage their last chance for happiness ought to be enough for them, enough for any romance, though I recognize that it rarely is. Cinderella is obviously happy in the man fate intended for her, but neither is it ever quite irrelevant that he is a prince. Even in The Shop Around the Corner, Jimmy Stewart got to be the manager at the same time that he found happiness with Margaret Sullavan. The image of worldly felicity that fulfilled romance and marriage is intended to convey generally needs a bit of a boost, and it can rarely stand up well to any nagging suspicion that the audience is allowed to entertain about what a rocky and difficult road lies ahead, as it always does lie ahead. All that is expected of it is to persuade us, once again, that the fulfilment makes any hardship or difficulty worth it, and I think An Affair to Remember does that.

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