Love Affair, 1939, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne. Directed by Leo McCarey. B&W, 87 minutes.
Playboy Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer) is on an ocean liner headed for New York and his fiancée, Lois Clarke (Astrid Allwyn) when he meets singer Terry McKay (Irene Dunne), who is also engaged. Despite their attachments, however, the two are charmed by each other, and by the time the ship hits shore, they are in love.
Before that, they take advantage of a stop in Madeira, where Michel introduces Terry to his grandmother Janou (Maria Ouspenskaya). Janou is quite taken with Terry, telling her there’s nothing wrong with Michel that a good woman couldn’t cure. She also shows Terry a painting of Michel’s, revealing his artistic talent.
Once in New York, Michel and Terry part, agreeing to meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building. During that time, Michel vows to try to make it as an artist, while Terry further pursues her singing career.
But fate steps in before the two can meet, leaving Michel in the dark about why.
Love Affair received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Dunne, Best Supporting Actress for Ouspenskaya, Best Writing (Original Story), Best Art Direction and Best Original Song for “Wishing.” It won none, but this was 1939, considered by many to be the best year for films in the golden age of Hollywood. Competition was stiff, particularly from Gone With the Wind.
Dunne had worked with director Leo McCarey before and was used to his informal approach to dialogue, but Boyer was unfamiliar with it. In a novel approach for the time, McCarey asked his actors and actresses to ad lib and paraphrase the script. The result was very natural dialogue, keeping it fresh even today. Dunne later said that, along with George Stevens, McCarey was among her favorite directors.
She also later called Love Affair one of her “most favorite” films, in part because of the festive attitude on the set. It was filmed during the Christmas holiday season, with decorations on the set and gift-giving all around. The “joyous attitude” contributed heavily to Dunne’s feelings of favor toward the film.
While both Greta Garbo and Helen Hayes expressed interest in the lead, Dunne was McCarey’s first choice for Love Affair. He catered the film to her talents, including a nightclub scene so she could sing.
The idea for Love Affair was inspired by real-life events for Leo McCarey, who later related a conversation with his wife on their return voyage from Europe. “Suppose you and I were talking to each other when the boat sailed from England…by the time the trip was over, we were madly in love with each other, but…we have found out that each is obligated to someone else.”
Love Affair was remade in 1957 as An Affair to Remember, also directed by McCarey with a very similar script. It’s up to each individual to decide which they prefer, but Love Affair is a strong film, with a wonderful cast, strong script (including the improvisation) and fine direction. Well worth the watch.