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Vol. LXI, No. 43
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
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DVD Review

The Good, the Bad, and the Wildly Improbable

Stuart Mitchner

Deborah Kerr’s death on October 16 at the age of 86 sent me straight to the library for the DVD of An Affair to Remember. Released 50 years ago, this wildly improbable tale of a playboy (Cary Grant) and a singer (Deborah Kerr) estranged by a bizarre stroke of fate is widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories. It was directed by Leo McCarey, who made an earlier version with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer called Love Affair (1939).

Although most obituaries focused on Kerr’s roles in From Here to Eternity and The King and I (1956), the tributes on YouTube suggest that Affair is the movie people place closest to the heart of her career. Its love theme is used to accompany most of the posted film clips, including a thoughtfully arranged sequence in which she’s serving or sipping tea. The sense of looking through an album of quiet, intimate scenes from a genteel woman’s everyday life brings out the subtle integrity that may be her most appealing quality and that may also have led audiences (as it did me) to take her for granted. She’s not the flashy star misleadingly suggested by the media’s fixation on the beach scene in which she and Burt Lancaster are passionately entangled with the waves crashing over them. Interviewed in the featurette about the making of From Here to Eternity that accompanies the DVD, director Fred Zinneman (1907-1997) claims to have anticipated the chemistry that would result from siphoning Kerr’s essential decency into the character of a promiscuous woman.

Over the Top

In An Affair to Remember, Deborah Kerr holds her own even as the movie descends into a nightmare of heavyhanded Hollywood wholesomeness in which a too cute to be true chorus of kids performs a number while Kerr conducts them from her wheelchair. It’s a scene that makes you wish James Agee could come back from the dead long enough to skewer it. After telling you how nicely Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr play off one another, and how convincingly felt their performances are, and after ridiculing the idea that as level-headed a woman as the one played by Kerr could manage to get hit by a car on her way to a rendezvous with Grant atop the Empire State Building, Agee would devote a few devastating lines to the freckled, pigtailed, ethnically mixed kiddie chorus with the black boy and girl hoofing it according to the “they got rhythm” stereotype. Say what you will, this benign form of child abuse is only one of several blatant insults to the audience’s emotional intelligence. If you were to see this film under the right circumstances, you could probably get drunk on the sheer outrageousness of it. The denouement beggars all reason and yet the scene where the lovers are talking at tense cross-purposes (he still doesn’t know why she didn’t show up atop the Empire State that day) is tastefully navigated by both actors. The movie ends with the misunderstanding sorted out and Kerr and Grant wiping the tears from each other’s cheeks.

Home video and DVD sales and rentals of An Affair to Remember got a huge boost thanks to Nora Ephron’s homage to it in the screenplay for Sleepless in Seattle (1993), where Rita Wilson gives a hilariously tearful account of that tearful ending; the clip, which is among the Affair DVD’s Special Features, closes with two women weeping over the scene, one of them sobbing: “Men never get this movie!”

I beg to differ. You don’t have to cry to get it. In fact, you can smile the way you do when a play or a book or a movie or a painting goes deliriously over the top. One of the “guilty pleasures” offered by movies, especially Hollywood juggernauts of craven box office overkill, is the way they can simply blow reality and common sense at the moon.

The Master

Genuinely depicting sentiment under the aegis of the studio system is a formidable task; nothing looks more ridiculous on the screen than fake or forced emotion. It’s a shame that the one true master of the love story, Frank Borzage, is so poorly represented on video and DVD. His 1937 film, History Is Made at Night, is an infinitely more convincing and even more improbable romance, featuring a similar plotline of estranged lovers (Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur) who lose and find one another in New York. In Affair, it’s a huge stretch to believe that the playboy played by Cary Grant becomes an artist, but in Borzage’s wild and wonderful extravaganza, which begins with murder and ends with a replay of the sinking of the Titanic, you have no doubt that Charles Boyer is the greatest headwaiter in the world, nor that “the Great Caesar” (unforgettably played by Leo Carrillo) is the greatest chef.

Agee on Kerr

It turns out that James Agee actually had quite a lot to say about Deborah Kerr. One of the uncollected pieces of film writing included in the Library of America’s Agee is a 1947 Time feature on her (“A Star Is Born”) that may have gone unpublished both because of its excessive length and uncharacteristically (for Time as well as Agee) gushy, personal style. He begins by quoting a producer telling Kerr “Sweet lady, you have a spiritual face!” He then announces that the big wigs at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer “suspect that she might be the biggest thing that has happened to M-G-M since Greer Garson,” that she “looks like everything Englishmen mean when they become lyrical about roses,” that her “natural coloring would have reduced Renoir to a quivering jelly,” that “she was dissolvingly lovely to look at,” and that she had managed “to charm the town” with her “warmth. grace, and willingness to accept anything and anyone at face value.”

A Really Bad Movie

Agee is right on the money when he brings in Greer Garson, who was like a 1940s precursor to Deborah Kerr in the next decade. Garson was also trapped in a Hollywood travesty I think of whenever the conversation turns to “really bad movies.” Compared to Victor Fleming’s Adventure (1945), An Affair to Remember is a model of restraint and plausibility. With Clark Gable home from a tour of duty in World War II, M-G-M was hoping to revive the tough, charismatic alpha male of It Happened One Night (“Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him”) while casting Garson in a clumsily plagiarized version of the Claudette Colbert role. Garson usually played mature, dignified women such as the title character in Mrs. Miniver. The bright idea in Adventure was that Mrs. Miniver would “let her hair down” and who better to help her do it than that rogue Gable? What makes the movie hard to watch is the humiliation of Garson, who is laughably out of her element as a prim librarian forced to rough it on the road with Gable. Perhaps it’s not fair to blame Garson for letting it happen. But I’d like to think that Deborah Kerr would have either turned down the part or else put all her warmth, grace, and charm into it as she does so bravely and beautifully in An Affair to Remember.

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