Long before TV’s “The Love Boat” promised “love, life’s sweetest reward,” “An Affair to Remember” brought audiences true love on the high seas. Ranked number five on AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Love Stories, “An Affair to Remember” is celebrating its 60th anniversary with special, big screen showings from TCM and a re-release on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Co-written and directed by Leo McCarey, “An Affair to Remember” was not McCarey’s first presentation of this romance. The director, who began his film career making silent comedy shorts for the Hal Roach Studios, had originally told this love story in 1939’s “Love Affair,” starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.
But, it is McCarey’s 1957 re-make that is best remembered. Part of the reason for that is its two stars- Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Both were at the height of their careers at the time. Very few leading men have ever looked better than Grant does in a tux. And, even fewer leading ladies could get away with appearing in a fur coat (this was the Eisenhower era), their hair still set with pins under a scarf, and make it all seem natural, as Kerr does in one pivotal scene.
Sixty years later, “An Affair to Remember’s” script still resonates with both sophisticated humor and passionate romance. From the first flirtation after “meeting cute” when Terry McKay (Kerr) finds playboy Nickie Ferrante’s (Grant) lost cigarette case, to their realizing they are falling in love while visiting Ferrante’s grandmother (expertly played by British character actress Cathleen Nesbitt), neither star hits a wrong note.
“An Affair to Remember” has hallmarks that especially characterize it as part of McCarey’s body of work. In 1944, his “Going My Way” had been awarded seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and both Best Original Story and Best Screenplay. That film’s tale of a laid back priest (Bing Crosby) sent to help revitalize a parish run by a traditionalist (Barry Fitzgerald), not only put religion front and center, it also featured songs performed by Crosby with the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir.
McCarey took two of those elements- religion and children singing- and incorporated them into “An Affair to Remember.” While Terry is praying, audiences see Ferrante look at her not just as another potential conquest, but as someone to both love and admire. And, it is a local priest (Matt Moore) who gets former nightclub singer Terry involved in teaching a multi-racial children’s choir (don’t forget, McCarey originally worked at Hal Roach Studios, the home of the integrated “Our Gang” series starring child actors). Unfortunately, the two songs the kids sing in “An Affair to Remember”- “The Tiny Scout” and “Tomorrow Land”- aren’t as catchy as “Going My Way’s” Oscar-winning “Swinging on a Star.”
In the 1990s, “An Affair to Remember” experienced a type of revival. The film featured prominently in the plot of director Nora Ephron’s 1993 classic romantic comedy, “Sleepless in Seattle.” That film’s heroine Annie (Meg Ryan) and her best friend/boss Becky (Rosie O’Donnell), are huge fans of “An Affair to Remember.” Annie is unexpectedly attracted to widowed Sam (Tom Hanks) when she hears him on a late night radio talkshow. Annie sends Sam a letter which captivates his young son, Jonah (Ross Malinger) and Jonah’s best friend, Jessica (Gaby Hoffmann). In another excellent use of child actors, the two kids plot to bring Sam and Annie together atop the Empire State Building, the same spot where Terry and Ferrante were supposed to rendezvous in “An Affair to Remember.”
In 1994, real life husband and wife Warren Beatty and Annette Bening starred in a re-make of “An Affair to Remember.” Titled “Love Affair” (like the 1939 original), the parallels between real life and screen fiction weren’t lost on audiences. Just two years earlier, Beatty, a notorious playboy, had been won over by Bening and married her. The couple were joined onscreen by movie legend Katharine Hepburn, in her final film appearance, as the grandmother to Beatty’s character.
For contemporary audiences, “An Affair to Remember’s” love story still rings true. Viewers should watch for director McCarey’s effective framing of some key moments: the bed in the background when Grant and Kerr first verbally flirt and spar in her cabin aboard ship; their first kiss that’s never seen- only their legs on the ship stairs and Kerr’s hand express their physical connection; and the reflection of the Empire State Building in the glass of the patio door after Kerr tells her boyfriend, Ken (Richard Denning), she’s fallen in love with Grant. These touches, a witty script, and two excellent leads at the height of their powers, all combine to keep “An Affair to Remember” timeless after sixty years.