Program Notes: Love Affair (1939)

Directors don’t often get do-overs.

Oh, Hollywood loves remakes. They come with a built-in audience...or so it’s thought.

But a director making the same movie twice? Not so often.

Hitchcock made The Man Who Knew Too Much twice (in 1934 and in 1956). Beyond that I know of only one other such re-do.

In 1939 Leo McCarey directed Love Affair with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. In 1957 he remade it as An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

“The difference between Love Affair and An Affair to Remember is very simply the difference between Charles Boyer and Cary Grant,” McCarey recalled. “Grant could never really mask his sense of humor – which is extraordinary – and that’s why the second version is funnier. But I still prefer the first.”

Film Screening:
Love Affair (1939)
Saturday, Apr. 5 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Both screenplays were written by McCarey and follow more or less the same plot. A notorious playboy and a woman (she’s a nightclub singer) meet on a boat chugging from Europe to America. Both are engaged to other people, but they fall in love.

Arriving in New York, they make a pact. They’ll spend time apart and then, if they still feel that romantic tug, they will meet in exactly six months at the top of the Empire State Building (“The nearest thing to heaven that we have in New York”).

If one of them fails to show, they’ll know their affair wasn’t meant to be.

Except that the woman has a terrible accident en route to the designation and is now disabled. The man assumes he’s been rejected...but later they meet and renew their romance.

Discovering that during her disappearance her lover has launched a career as an artist, the woman promises: “If you can learn to paint, I can learn to walk.”

The End.

As good as Boyer and Dunne were, they nearly had the movie stolen out from under them by veteran Russian-born actress Maria Ouspenskaya, who plays Boyer’s doting grandmother. She walked off with an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress.

Today the ‘50s version of the yarn (Cary Grant...Technicolor) is far better known...and that’s a pity. For in many ways Love Affair points out precisely why Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne were such major stars in the 1930s.

Both actors established screen personas that came through loud and clear no matter what the role.

A character played by the French-born Boyer, wrote one biographer, was “A cosmopolitan gentleman, a gracious fellow of breeding and sophistication, with social and artistic status, always impeccably attired in smart but conservative business suits...for such an image the bittersweet love story was a natural habitat.”

As for Dunne, it was said that if she wasn’t the first lady of Hollywood, she was the last one.

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On screen she was dignified and gracious. While she was versatile, her characters were invariably virtuous. But as Love Affair demonstrates, she had a great comedic sense – not quite screwball, but utterly charming.

And being well past starlet age (she was 40 when she made this picture), she had a lovely sense of gravitas beneath the whimsy.

Plus, she could sing. She performs “Wishing (Will Make It So),” in the movie; it became America’s most popular song of the summer of ‘39. Dunne also appeared in five full-blown movie musicals.

Boyer, by the way, was famous for being one of the most successful independent actors in Hollywood. He never signed a contract with a studio.

“If you are contracted to a motion picture company,” he explained, “that company owns your mind and body. The studio decides not only the roles you will play, it also attempts to control every aspect of your life. A contract artist has absolutely no privacy. The studio follows him everywhere, even into the bedroom.”

Boyer bypassed the studio publicity system, acting as own press agent, giving interviews (but never at home, so as to protect his privacy) and cultivating powerbrokers like celebrity columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. It was said that Boyer employed “gracious diplomacy from a discreet distance.”

As a result of their teaming in Love Affair, Boyer, Dunne and their spouses became one of Tinseltown’s regular foursomes. In the wake of the picture’s success (it was nominated for the Oscar for best picture, but lost to Gone With the Wind), they were cast in another romantic drama, When Tomorrow Comes. Alas, it was a dud.

Leo McCarey’s career was summed up nicely by writer/filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich in his book
Who the Devil Made It

“Leo McCarey directed and co-wrote the original Love Affair...he won Oscars for directing Bing Crosby’s most likable performance in Going My Way and Cary Grant’s first real Cary Grant performance in The Awful Truth. He also directed the best Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup, and guided Charles Laughton through the memorable Ruggles of Red Gap... McCarey did movies with the most popular comedians of his time: Mae West, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chase, Eddie Cantor, Harold Lloyd, George Burns and Gracie Allen. The man responsible (but rarely credited) for teaming Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, McCarey also supervised, wrote, or directed all their best work.”

Not a bad resume.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Romance”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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