The other day I continued my habit of "Old Movie Sunday" and re-watched An Affair to Remember. It never fails to warm my heart - and inspire my brain to analyze. **Spoilers ahead, so if you haven't already learned the ending from Sleepless in Seattle, leave now.*** What makes this film so much more watchable than most chick-flicks today?
The plot is straightforward, and reminds me of a happier-ending Romeo and Juliet. The first act is a comedy of manners as boy and girl woo with witty banter. Unfortunately, previous social connections forbid their union. The second act turns tragic as the girl seems felled by disaster. Luckily this Juliet is still conscious and able to carry on a conversation when her man finds her. And Ken-doll Paris is surprisingly obliging even after he learns his kept woman has fallen for someone else.
Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr's star-crossed romance is remarkably chaste - the titular "affair" consists mostly of long gazes and fervent handclasps. Kerr keeps playboy Grant at arm's length, guarding her cabin door and enforcing a strict curfew. All these boundaries just tease our emotions into passion and longing. The camera taunts us with a lingering but out-of-frame first kiss. Fleeting displays of affection remind viewers of the imminent separation that will dominate Act 2. The fact that our couple doesn't spend their ocean voyage romping in bed maintains the romantic tension and makes their story that much more bittersweet.
I'll admit, some parts of Act II are a treacly time-capsule. I want to gag when Kerr teaches precocious at-risk youth to belt out tunes about obeying your conscience. The step-solo by the token African-American kids is what puts me over the top.
Deborah Kerr lives in a world dominated by men, and she makes some earnest but clumsy attempts at feminism. Her journey from wearing diamonds to struggling as a schoolmarm reminded me of Jane Eyre somehow, especially how she avoids the love of her life until she comes to her senses about how much they need each other. Kerr is sick of male egos, and so avoids them by insisting on footing her own medical bills.
Still, her independence is a little myopic. Ken doll is not the violently jealous man she makes him out to be. Cary Grant is more hurt by her secrecy than he would ever be over the source of her medical coverage. Like the heroine of The Millstone, Kerr must realize that if a liberated woman "asked more favors of people, I would find them more kind."
The film also resonated with me as a look at 1950s medical access. Effective treatment is something only for the wealthy. Stigmas accompany any disability. No one in the film actually utters the word "crippled" or "paralyzed." Kerr's injuries are cleverly kept secret until we see a theater usher bring out her *gasp!* wheelchair. Friends do treat Kerr with compassion and respect, but she's also an object of hush-hush pity.
Ok, enough social commentary. Why do I love this movie? Because love saves its main characters. When they meet, they are smart, funny, and bored with their glamorous lifestyles. They realize that "we'd be fools to let happiness pass us by." They work hard to make their relationship viable, making career changes and eventually taming their pride. They fight rationally, and then they reconcile.
That' s how it should work. It's much more emotionally satisfying than someone chasing their crush through an airport for an "oh wait, I actually do love you!" public make-out session.