Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember, my second of his films after the heartbreaking Make Way for Tomorrow, affirms beyond all doubt his sincere love for and idealization of the couple, and he romanticizes to no end the affair between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr until it loses the glossy lavishness of a sentimental fling and hopes to attain true longevity. As in Make Way for Tomorrow, McCarey details how the world conspires against the consummation of true romantic love, turning the couple into tabloid fodder or targets for derision. Only a beautiful, transcendent interlude, in which the couple visits Grant’s grandmother in France at a humble, secluded mansion that houses a chapel, far removed from the dimly lit glamour of the cloistered cruise-ship, assures them that they belong with one another forever. This is what makes the film; the scene exults a romantic Hollywood couple to a plane of spiritual togetherness. Instead of cautiously exchanging flirtatious double-meanings, they pray together in the chapel and share a wholesome time with the elderly woman, who shares all the dignity of Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi.
Of course their fateful meeting atop the Empire State Building is delayed, and what ensues might rub a few viewers the wrong way, perhaps as needless padding or cruel delay of what the audience has been waiting for. Especially perplexing is an entire musical number performed by the young children Kerr has come to teach at a small Catholic school. But McCarey must send his characters through a period of turmoil and humbling before they can effortlessly get what they desire, and it is moments like the corny children’s performance that provide much needed glimmers of joy that also serve as a personal mementos for McCarey, one of the most Catholic of directors. Grant’s torture, meanwhile, is depicted without a word; the camera lingers over him as he suffers the sights that marked the first stages of their love, and the fond memory of his grandmother’s piano playing that recalls that quaint nostalgic day they spent together provides one of the most convincing uses of music as gateway to sentimental remembrance that I have yet come across in a film. The final ten minutes, marked by jarring suspense, proceed along an awkward path of cautionary dialogue until in the last few minutes the unbridled force of the theme rushes out of the floodgates and drenches the screen in the purest of romantic love, and the final embrace takes place not atop the Empire State Building, but in a homely little room in a tucked away building.
McCarey’s innocent charm with which he paints Manhattan as a romantic snowcapped wonderland does more for me than all the gritty or intellectual imbuement customary of the most famous New York directors, among them Allen and Lumet. Meanwhile, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr’s performances are so fraught with turmoil, embarrassment and pathos, that they are immediately believable as the unlikely couple that meets by chance and falls in love, and McCarey allots equal care to both characters. The end result is a masterpiece I’m shocked to find drifting into low-tier McCarey and hokey romance canons.