Thursday, September 17, 2009

1939 - Love Affair

Covering an entire city block, Macy's is a gigantic department store here in New York City. And I mean gigantic. (In fact, it was the largest department store in the world until just a couple of months ago when a South Korean company opened an even more ridiculously sized one.) Whilst wandering around Macy's yesterday, I was mystified upon reaching the top of an escalator to find myself on Floor 1½. How do you get to this floor by elevator, I wondered. I imagined having to stop the elevator in between floors 1 and 2 and squeeze the doors open in order to exit, √† la Being John Malkovich (pictured). But alas, the elevator's panel does indeed include a button for Floor 1½ and shoppers are able to simply step out without the need to crouch.

Still, how on earth did this happen? Once construction was complete, did some ambitious executive demand an extra floor in between the first and second? It appears not. On one side of the enormous building, the first floor does seem to have a mezzanine, so I suspect that this balcony-like floor was simply not numbered until the other side of the store was built. The question remains, though. Why 1½? Why not M for mezzanine? Or B for balcony? Even EF for extra floor would have been less absurd. I suppose 1½ is the simple option.

Last night, I reached the final contender in 1939's Best Picture competition...

Love Affair
Leo McCarey
Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart, Leo McCarey and Mildred Cram
Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Don't be confused by the lead characters' names in this hopelessly romantic boy-meets-girl love story. The boy's name sounds like Michelle, but it's actually Michel. He's French, you see. And the girl's name is Terry, a common man's name. Got it? Good. So, Michel is a famous playboy finally settling down to get married. Terry is a frustrated singer somewhat involved with her supportive but boring boss. Michel and Terry meet on a cruise ship and, despite their attempts to suppress their affections, they secretly fall in love. They arrange to meet six months later on top of the Empire State Building, hoping by then to have reasonably dealt with the obstacles in their way, thereby making it possible for them to marry.

The film up to this point is simply beautiful. There's something sad but exciting about a love that cannot be and the obvious will-they-or-won't-they suspense that goes along with that. The secret flirtations. The no-we-mustn't looks. The but-I-can't-help-it touches. The to-hell-with-it kisses. It's genuinely beguiling to witness.

Inevitably, though, these kinds of stories suffer from the Ross and Rachel syndrome. As an audience, we begin to care a little less once they actually agree to be together. However, there are still plenty of obstacles in the way for Terry and Michel even after they declare their love for each other. But unfortunately, the main reason is a little hard to swallow. You see, when Terry is on her way to meet Michel at the Empire State Building, (spoiler alert) disaster strikes and she is knocked down by a car, ending up in hospital with a serious possibility of losing her ability to walk. But Terry doesn't inform Michel about any of this, reasoning that he would prefer not to be burdened with the task of taking care of a cripple. More months pass and even when they meet by chance at the theatre, she still insists on keeping the truth from him.

It all just seemed so unnecessary. Sure, the intention is there. She doesn't want him to sacrifice anything for her. But the reality is that it's kind of cruel. Michel waited until midnight for her and left devastated, remaining so for months.

Hmm, now that I'm writing this out, it actually is becoming quite a fascinating character study. Perhaps Terry's own self-doubt is the real culprit. Maybe she feared that Michel would reject her because of her condition and that's why she chose to keep him in the dark. She retains the control that way.

In any case, the final scene between the two of them recaptures that will-they-or-won't-they tension, and despite another abrupt ending (like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), it is indeed satisfying.

Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer are superb in their roles. There's a great chemistry between them and some of those early scenes have a surprising improvised feel about them. Very natural, indeed, considering the era. Leo McCarey has a deft directing style, sharing those clandestine moments on the ship with the audience as if it really is a secret. Their first kiss, for instance, is partially hidden behind a door (pictured). A special mention also to Ferike Boros, who appears in a cameo performance as Terry's landlady. She is downright hilarious.

So, that concludes the beast that is the 1939 Best Picture race. The next post will contain my musings on which of these ten fine films deserves the accolade of being my favourite. Plus, find out which year is next...


  1. Ah! Macy's - Matt, your blog is making me wax nostalgic way too much. Once again, as a kid, going to "The City" (which is what we Brooklynites called Manhattan) to Macy's was a special event. The toy department covered most of the 5th floor, and was our pre-Christmas ritual. There was no Toys-R-Us back then, and F.A.O Schwartz was out of our league. Does Macy's still have the wooden escalators on the top levels?

    Back to movies. I watched "Love Affair" last week. Like "Ninotchka," it was a movie I never saw completely before. Of course, I have seen its remake "An Affair to Remember" quite a few times. As an aside, it's interesting how many early directors remade their films. Leo McCarey directed both "Love Affair" and "An Affair to Remember." Hitchcock remade "The Man Who Knew Too Much," and Frank Capra remade his "Lady for a Day" as "A Pocketful of Miracles."

    I have to say that I preferred "Love Affair," which surprised me. I never thought I'd go for Charles Boyer over Cary Grant, not being a big Boyer fan. He was excellent as was Irene Dunne. Watching the youthful Boyer, I saw a definite resemblance to Jude Law, down to the expressions. Although I'm also a big fan of Deborah Kerr, I think she was miscast in a few of her big movies. Irene Dunne was at her optimistic best and kept the film from becoming too maudlin. I should point out that another remake came out in the 90s. Using the original title "Love Affair", Warren Beatty's effort was not one of his better films. So once again the original wins out in my book.

    What a year - 1939. I've narrowed my pick to two choices and am flip-flopping. I'll post my choice after your selection is made.

  2. Well, Matt you finally told me a way to post a comment without opening yet another internet account and I'll try to go back through the other films you already seen later on, but as for this film I've never seen. Why, because my mother hated Charles Boyer and loved Gary Grant, so I was brought up loving "An Affair to Remember" which I’ve seen umpteen times and being in love with Deborah Kerr as well. Not bad for an 11 or 12 year old when I saw her on TV. Anyway, I’ll be ordering this film from my local library to see if it sizes up with the film I was indoctrinated with and I be getting back to you.
    Since I first wrote this, I have seen my library’s copy and I have to say I enjoyed it very much. The version with Kerr and Grant is still my favorite, but Irene Dunne was a very refreshing delight. Boyer seemed a bit wooden (expressionless) at times but he too won me over by movie’s end.

    Sal D