Leo McCarey is an unheard of director in most discussions of the great Hollywood directors. Not until recently, when something of a McCarey cult has emerged, has his name been mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Lubitsch or Hawks. Yet, he’s in the running for the director with the most films on my list, and not once have I not enjoyed one of his films. Even when I was unable to finish An Affair to Remember, because of time constraints I was saddened because it’s a film that completely sweeps you up and doesn’t let go. While many people know of An Affair to Remember as one of the great romances of the screen, few are aware it’s a remake of McCarey’s own Love Affair, that was made nearly twenty years beforehand. Starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, it’s a story we’re all too familiar with as two people, who seem to have little in common, meet on a boat and fall in love.
It’s difficult to say what sets this film apart from the rest of the the romances I’ve seen (although this is hardly the last that will appear on my list), it’s really a combination of factors that meld together to create something truly memorable and unique. First there is Dunne and Boyer, who are arguably the classiest of the classic film stars. Even when either was being silly, they had an air of gracefulness that was unparalleled. They connect onscreen like few other couples, and while this can rarely be attributed to talent, one must give credit to whoever decided to match them. They play off each other with grace and elegance, taking comedic blows, while also making those moments of silence together as memorable as the quickest verbal blow. It’s their comfortable and joyous interractions in the first part of the film that make the shift into melodrama much easier. It’s a rare thing that a romance is so mature and genuine as this.
The one scene that stands high and above the rest as, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest scenes in classic cinema is the meeting of Michel’s widowed grandmother on a brief stop during their journey. Maria Ouspenskaya plays Grandmother Janou, in perhaps the best role a woman over sixty could ever dream of having. She’s the centrepiece for the success of their relationship, and allows the audience (and Terry) to fall in love with Michel all over again. It’s not so much a revelation of his softer side, but rather peeling back all inhibitions and filters that prevented them from truly connected. Janou plays something of the cinematic clairvoyant as she sees that Terry is the perfect woman for her grandson, she offers them both advice, and allows Michel to take the first step in becoming his own man once again, dropping the playboy image he was so famous for. This scene doesn’t sound too good on paper, but onscreen it’s magical and I’ve cried everytime I’ve seen it. This is top tier Hollywood cinema for me, it doesn’t get much better than this.