Some titles tell you just about all you need to know about the film’s subject. Nobody is going to mistake Love Affair for a western, or a fantasy film. It wears its heart on its sleeve as an unabashed romantic comedy. Remade a few times, including by director Leo McCarey himself as An Affair to Remember, the 1939 version starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer is still held in high regard. What’s interesting is that it holds up fairly well almost in spite of the fairly thin character writing.
Romantic comedies essentially live or die based on how much the audience believes in and cares about the romantic couple. Dunne and Boyer are charming actors, and have a great deal of on-screen chemistry with each other. This helps to sell the romance even though there’s little in the script to indicate just why these two fall in love with each other; as with so many films, this is infatuation by proximity. Dunne plays an American lounge singer who is on a buying trip, sent by her fiance. Boyer plays a French playboy on the way to join his fiancee; the two meet on the ship, and fall in love with each other. It requires the audience to forgive the infidelity of the characters, which is a marginally easier with Boyer’s character than Dunne’s. The wealthy heiress he’s set to marry repeatedly refers to him as “Michael” instead of his actual name “Michel”, indicating a bit of carelessness; this is essentially all the characterization she gets. Meanwhile, Terry’s (Dunne) fiance is repeatedly shown to be a good man who cares about her well-being even after he knows he’s lost her heart.
The main characters are similarly not given a lot of detail in their personalities. Dunne’s Terry is a standard “spunky” girl, exchangeable with any number of heroines from the 1930s. Boyer’s Michel is a womanizer, given to flirting with everyone, and Terry is apparently the first woman he’s ever been inclined to be faithful to. His redeeming qualities are that he’s witty and charming, and that he deeply adores his grandmother, played by Maria Ouspenskaya, whose scene adds some of the most believable emotional depth.
The film is essentially driven by character decisions that are difficult to explain. When they reach port, Michel says he has to prove his worth to marry Terry by finding a way to earn a living. Yet he was apparently willing to marry the heiress without this, and it’s obviously not a question of money; he was world-famous in the beginning of the movie, and apparently independently wealthy (the movie opens with radio announcements of his impending marriage, followed by a flock of young women asking for his autograph). So we’re left with him deciding he needs to get a job to marry Terry… without any apparent need for a job itself. A later separation is caused by Terry deciding she doesn’t want to face him after an injury until or unless she has healed from it. It takes a minor Christmas miracle to bring them back together again, a year after their initial meeting.
But despite the difficulties I had with the writing, this is a still quite an enjoyable film. Dunne and Boyer are both great actors, and individually or together their screen presence sells the scene. And the directing is solid as well; there are several scenes where a lot is revealed through clever, but subtle, tricks of arrangement. Although I ultimately found the story a little unsatisfying, it’s a very well-crafted film.