Judge Christopher Kulik may not think this is a film to remember, but he does admit the affair itself has romantic sizzle.
Our love affair may it always be A flame to burn through eternity So take my hand with a fervent prayer That we may live and we may share A love affair to remember
Hailed as one of the most romantic and passionate films of all time, An Affair to Remember is a remake of a 1939 film called Love Affair, which were both directed with flair by Leo McCarey. Critics seem to be divided on which one of McCarey's films is the superior film though, to many audiences, there is no contest. The latter version from 1957 starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr has become (to them) a beloved classic, and its status was given a boost in the early 1990s when Nora Ephron employed the film into the story of Sleepless in Seattle; on top of that, the film was remade yet again (in 1994) with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening under its original title. Several years ago, the American Film Institute named the film in the top five of their 100 years, 100 passions list. That's quite an honor, but is it really deserved? We shall see, as the rather late (or overdue, if you're a fan) 50th Anniversary Edition of An Affair to Remember docks into your DVD player courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox home entertainment.
Facts of the Case
The film is primarily centered around the relationship of two people, with the first half showcasing their growing attraction on a luxury liner, and the second presenting the inevitable obstacles that keep them from coming together. Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant, North by Northwest, Bringing Up Baby) is a suave, sexy playboy who always had the problem of generating a monogamous relationship. Terry McKay (the late Deborah Kerr, From Here to Eternity, The King and I) is a mature, mesmerizing nightclub singer who is in a serious relationship. Despite the fact that Nickie is travelling back to the U.S. to marry an American heiress, he is unsure if the relationship will remain stable because of his Don Juan reputation. Terry is charmed by Nickie, though she doesn't want to become a target of the paparazzi by getting involved with him. Both try to avoid each other, but it doesn't last for long.
The story takes an interesting turn when Nickie invites Terry to meet his grandmother in a brief stop in France. Grandma Janou (Cathleen Nesbitt, The Parent Trap, Julia) takes an immediate liking to Terry, and the film's high point comes when Janou plays the piano and Terry "sings" (actually it was Marni Nixon) sweetly in French syllables. Soon after getting back on the ship going to New York, Nickie and Terry surrender themselves to each other, though must face the reality of going separate ways when the cruise comes to a close. So, they make a pact: after six months, if they are still in love, they will meet at the top of the Empire State Building. Nickie shows up, but while waiting something happens to Terry on the streets below…and the reunion never happens. Will their love truly bring them together again and make their affair one to remember? Duh!
While that last word sounded kind of harsh, even I have to admit—-as a fan of films, including romantic ones—-that An Affair to Remember is, if anything, awfully clichéd. Still, that doesn't necessarily make it a bad film; on the contrary, I thought it was two-thirds of a great movie, and can obviously see why it has generated a genuine following over the years. The stars are mighty and magnetic, the music is truly romantic, and the direction is tender and punctual. Plus, even as a guy, I refuse to label this film as a "chick flick," as other critics like to say, largely because I think the term is equal parts stereotypical and sexist. Yes, I do think some guys would like An Affair to Remember, despite its age and familiar story. Still, I can't go so far as to call the film a classic, for reasons I will explain later.
One thing I wish I had done before sitting down to watch An Affair to Remember for the first time was to watch the original 1939 version of Love Affair, so I could make comparisons. However, maybe that is a good thing as I can be a staunch purist when it comes to remakes. That being said, I barely remember watching the 1994 version and couldn't get into it…then again, I wasn't even out of high school yet. While I was listening to the audio commentary on An Affair to Remember, I discovered more or less why director Leo McCarey (who had won Oscars for Going My Way and The Awful Truth) had decided to do a remake of Love Affair. One reason because he felt the story deserved a treatment in not only color but also Cinemascope, which was quite a popular process throughout the 1950s. Another reason was McCarey felt a remake could connect more with younger people.
In addition, the role of Nickie seemed tailor made for a major star such as Cary Grant, who you could say is playing a version of himself. Grant's trademark wit and charm is here in full force, and he is irresistible to watch, though I think the film belongs to the luminous Kerr. While she certainly made her mark in the 1950s, she is not really all that remembered today. True, she is probably recognized more in this film than any other, though we must note that she raised so many eyebrows (particularly in the decade of Marilyn Monroe) with a certain beach scene in From Here to Eternity. While I did empathize with both Nickie and Terry, I think that Kerr's character was much more interesting, considering that she was emotionally confused nearly every step of the way when it came to Nickie. Nominated for six Oscars, Kerr sadly passed away last October after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.
While the soundtrack may never catch up with Dirty Dancing (or even Breakfast at Tiffany's) in terms of sales, the songs and music can't be overlooked. However, what many audiences seem to not notice—-which is mostly unintentional, of course—-is the work contributed by Marni Nixon. Known by many as The Great Dubber, she dubbed much not only Kerr's singing in An Affair to Remember but also The King and I. She later went on to do some of the greatest musicals, dubbing such stars as Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn…and yet, she was never given onscreen credit. Nixon's powerful soprano voice is present every time that Kerr is singing, and on the commentary track, she remembers how bitter she was when she got shafted by the studio more often than not. Sure, Vic Damone may be singing the title tune over the opening credits, though Nixon is the one that stands out when it comes to this quasi-musical version.
As with many Fox pictures of the era, the cinematography, costumes, and art-set decoration are all world class and the studio seemed to take much care with the print on the DVD, which might possibly be the same one offered on the 2003 release, though I can't say for sure. The colors are immaculate and clean, with no dirt or edge enhancement detected, and Hugo Friedhofer's romantic score sounds lovely in the Dolby Digital 2.0. Indeed, while Warner may be still king in this reviewer's eyes in terms of restoration and remastering, Fox has done a more than respectable job on their older catalog titles, particularly the ones like An Affair to Remember, which are released as part of their Cinema Classics Collection. What I found rather odd, though, is that the DD 2.0 Stereo is only available in English and French, but not Spanish. Consequently, the film offers the choice between English and Spanish subtitles, but not French. I'm not making a big deal out of it, I just found it odd.
Being a brand new, 2-disc set, the extras offered on this Anniversary Edition are quite adequate. First up, we have on Disc One an audio commentary with film historian Joseph McBride and singer Marni Nixon, both of whom were recorded separately. Of the two, I preferred Nixon, who provided some truly fascinating personal history with her strained relationship with the studio system, especially with working on 1955's A King and I. As for McBride, he provides some interesting comments (he seems to prefer this version over the original and discusses many of the differences between the two); however, he seems to slide more often than not on just describing what is on the screen and talking about the characters' differences. My sister would say that he is like sports commentators in that he just states the obvious in terms of the action being seen on screen.
Disc Two has a number of featurettes, starting with one each devoted to Kerr and Grant, respectively (both are more like brief perspectives). Screenwriter Peter Viertel (The African Queen, The Sun Also Rises) was Kerr's husband, and he talks a little about his wife and what she was like in the 1950s. This was probably his final interview, as he also passed away recently—-only one month after his wife! Grant's widow is interviewed for his segment, and she discusses about her relationship with the screen star, despite the wide age difference. The featurette on Leo McCarey has much more juice, because it has perspectives from a number of film critics, and also director Peter Bogdanovich, who is always a pleasure listening to. There is another featurette on producer Jerry Wald (mostly narrated by his brother), as well as one focusing how the film was shot.
Rounding out the special features are a Backstory documentary produced by American Movie Classics, which is the most detailed of all the extras, running about 27 minutes. There is a vintage Fox newsreel that promotes the film and showcases the original premiere that lasts about 27 seconds. Two galleries are also present, one of which is devoted to the posters, and another a series of still shots, which total about. Oh, yes, I also forgot to mention that once you open up the DVD, there are four reproductions of lobby cards from the 1957 premiere. Overall, while the exclusive featurettes (aside from the one on McCarey) are disappointingly brief, the AMC Backstory doc is excellent, and the galleries and lobby cards are more than welcome. For fans of the film, these extras should be enjoyable and plentiful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So why is it I can't label An Affair to Remember as a classic in my book? In a nutshell, while I do think the film delivers enough as a love story, where it stops short is being a tearjerker. Now before everyone starts raising the cynic flags, I do love romantic/love stories that are done well. Two of my absolute favorites are Gone with the Wind and An Officer and a Gentleman; others like Children of a Lesser God and The Quiet Man never fail to move me. The difference between An Affair to Remember and those other films is that never, once, did I shed a tear while watching it. Yes, Grant and Kerr had chemistry, and yes, I did empathize with them, but ultimately I felt the story became too clichéd and predictable that I saw the ending a mile away. I've cried at many love stories, too, even if they are a little predictable; if anyone remembers Ice Castles, then you should know exactly what I'm talking about.
Ultimately, I think that An Affair to Remember is kind of, well, overrated. The stars are there, the romance is there, the music is there, and the story, while being simplistic, I still accept. However, some of the believability is skewed when Kerr is attempting to get to the Empire State Building and is stopped short for circumstances I will not reveal. I just cannot see how this film could have gotten in the top five AFI Passions, when other films like City Lights, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Apartment (all of which have far more powerfully romantic endings) that are lower on that list. Finally, I think the film just goes on too long for such a simple, sweet story, and some of the scenes (particularly in the second half) could have been cut down or dropped altogether. For example, were the two sequences with the children's choir really all that necessary? (Perhaps this is why some critics prefer the 1939 version, which is nearly a half hour shorter!)
For fans of An Affair to Remember, the 50th Anniversary Edition from Fox is definitely worth it, and it probably would make an ideal gift for Valentine's Day. Even though I think the film is a bit overrated, I must give props to the folks at Fox for delivering a terrific 2-disc edition of this beloved piece of romance, and while the concept of double-dipping sounds unnecessary (even for this film), the fans shouldn't really care.
I hereby acquit Fox and the film of all charges. Court's in recess until the Special Edition DVD of Ice Castles comes out. Dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Singer Marnie Nixon and Film Historian Joseph McBride
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