1957, Movies

An Affair to Remember (1957, Leo McCarey)

This is one of those “classic” bantery Hollywood romantic comedies with a Cary Grant-type – this time played by Cary Grant, here paired with one of his regular sparring partners, Deborah Kerr. It’s one of those movies where two unbelievably rich and self-assured people throw witticisms at each other – with a little tiny bit of slapstick – and we are supposed to think this is the Height of Comedy, and if we don’t I guess there’s something wrong with us. (At least we’ve mostly lost that generation of film critics who used to insist that there was nothing funnier than Wit and these movies were the absolute Wittiest!) And then the witticisms are worn down by the sheer attraction of the two leads (as are we!) and the Height of Comedy yields to the Height of Romance, and everything is wonderful.

Or something like that.

But with years and years of movies based in some kind of actual reality made in between my birth and Hollywood stuff like this, it’s so hard to be reasonable and objective with stuff like this. Like the jokes at the poor slightly-less-rich-man’s expense made me wonder aloud whether or not this was a subtle critique of how the super rich view the slightly less rich or whether the less well to do were supposed to envy the super rich and to imagine the day, once the American Dream was achieved, when they too could be famous like Cary Grant, and just ignore that slightly better than middle class bumbling American who aspires to wealth and fame, but who never quite made it, and who we all know and mock.

And of course the paintings in a film like this just drive me crazy. As does Cary Grant…is he Italian? His name sounds like it. But then his mom is French – played by an old British Woman, n’est-ce pas? – as is the help, so he’s clearly French. But then, of course, he remains Cary Grant through and through, just a rich mid-Atlantic American. I was going to commend Old Hollywood on the casting of Kerr opposite Grant until I looked it up and realized she was 17 years his junior. (I can’t say she looks mid thirties in this, I thought she was older.)

Anyway… these movies and their fake, over-stated sentiment, like when the mother says something like “These are the boundaries of my small world” – even though she was once a concert pianist! – as if she would know something like this. And then Kerr’s character is just so gosh darn overwhelmed by meeting his mother; well, they just drive me crazy. It’s an aspirational semi-universal thing, or s stab at it anyway: we the audience project our (illicit!) dreams onto these impossibly rich, already committed people, so we two can imagine that we could be traveling across the Atlantic – at least I think it’s the Atlantic! – and fall in love anew, our horrible, oppressive spouses (or future spouses) be damned! If only there weren’t so many rules and entanglements in the way of love and leisure! And Grant’s and Kerr’s characters are just vague enough that we can project our own selves on to them: sure they’re both witty and (very) worldly, but they don’t have too-specific goals beyond love and leisure, so our dreams remain intact.

I always feel guilty slamming this stuff, not just because back in the day audiences often didn’t know better – though by 1957 some should have, as foreign films were getting some distribution in the States – but also because, now that I am older and less “Art is all that matters!” I do see some value in entertainment and so I guess I can see why someone might get offended or put off when I get so annoyed by something clearly designed just to let people escape for a while.


I believe escapism can be more authentic than stuff like this. I think movies can aspire to not including obvious statements of how people are feeling, or a character’s situation, and I think escapist entertainment can aspire to have better, more realistic, more believable characters, and that these characters can drive the narrative, or lack there of, rather than having a goofy little “rich people having fun” “story” with characters that function as little more than slates for the audience to project their dreams upon.

As Hollywood movies of its era go, this is competent and slick and adequate but if you want to see a great example of a film (relatively) like this done well, watch Before Sunrise. Or, if you prefer “classics,” watch Brief Encounter.


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