Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Remake Debate: Love Affair (1939) vs. An Affair to Remember (1957)

Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the 1957 remake.
People have been debating this since 1957 when Leo McCarey decided to remake his 1939 romantic classic Love Affair as An Affair to Remember, and the debate has only become more heated for old-movie buffs as the years pass. The story goes like this: director/screenwriter Leo McCarey, wrote the original 1939 script with Cary Grant in mind for his leading man, but Grant was unable to do it because of other obligations (he did, however, make Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings that year, both of which are fantastic pictures). Instead McCarey was forced to go with French actor Charles Boyer, whose tenuous grasp of English made his rendition of the famous final scene much less powerful than the performance Grant gave eighteen years later. Even though the film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that year, McCarey was not happy with the result, and thus after waiting a decent interval, he secured Grant as a leading man and decided to go ahead with a remake. That picture greatly eclipsed the fame of the original, mostly because it did not have to compete with Gone with the Wind the way its predecessor did.

That being the case, many people have argued - and rightly so - that despite Grant's superior performance and the more lavish production values, the remake feels somewhat hallow compared to the original. There are reasons for this, too. To start with the female lead was originally written for and performed by Irene Dunne (who, incidentally, had terrific chemistry with Grant in The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, and Penny Serenade which makes it especially a shame that they couldn't do the original together as planned), and she's absolutely perfect, blending just the right amount of humor and pathos - and doing her own signing with her light-lyric operatic soprano, unlike Deborah Kerr, who was dubbed in the remake and seems harder and more stilted in her acting style. Then there's the problem of pacing: the original seemed just right, telling its story in just under 90 minutes, whereas the 2-hour pace of the remake drags at times, especially in the second half. Most glaringly awful of these additional/updated scenes are the musical sequences with Kerr's elementary school class, which are corny without either being charming or adding anything to the narrative.

Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in the 1939 original.
Apart from Cary Grant, though, there quite a few things to like about the remake. As mentioned above the famous final scene is much stronger in the remake, and since it's the emotional center of the story, you can argue for the remake's overall superiority on that ground alone. I also really love the cinematography, especially a certain shot on the ocean liner where Grant and Kerr kiss on a staircase, but we only see their legs, making the moment amazingly evocative; it's the kind of minimalist technique that filmmakers today would do well to emulate. The score, too, seems to blend perfectly with each scene, and the theme song is particularly memorable and reprised to great effect.

So which to I really prefer? I can't really say. I grew up with the Cary Grant version and will always prefer his performance as the male lead, but I'm becoming fonder and fonder of the original as I get older, especially because I adore Irene Dunne. I therefore find myself in the most disagreeable position any arbiter of taste can be: that of being unable to say equivocally which has more merit. Both are equally worth watching, though, so my advice is simply to watch them both and decide for yourself.