Love Affair (1939)

When I watched Gaslight a few months back, I ended up hating Charles Boyer (which goes to prove what a fine actor he was). He was just so supremely evil in a suave sort of way that I mentally vowed to slot him among those whose films I wouldn’t be actively searching for. Thankfully for me, bollyviewer came along with a suggestion that would help me like Charles Boyer a little better. This was it.

Love Affair is an oft-repeated tale, popular both in Hollywood and Bollywood. It’s spawned nearly half a dozen remakes and ‘inspirations’ that I have seen, and who knows how many others. An Affair to Remember (1957), with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, is a very faithful copy of this one. Bollywood came up with Bheegi Raat (1965), more inspired by Love Affair than an exact copy, as well as Mann (1999), which was a copy, down to the setting in which the protagonists first meet.

Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in Love Affair

In Love Affair, this happens to be a plush transatlantic liner, all polished wood and pink champagne, with the ladies in furs and diamonds—and nearly all of them in pursuit of playboy Michel Marnay (Charles Boyer), who’s crossing the pond to America. Unfortunately for the lasses, Michel’s going to the States to marry an heiress.

The girls flock around Michel

Michel’s getting more than a little peeved with the lack of intelligent female company on board, until he crosses paths with the witty and beautiful Terry McKay (Irene Dunne). Terry and Michel hit it off from the word go, and when Michel invites her to have dinner with him, Terry agrees. A post-dinner cigarette in Terry’s room brings Michel’s hopes of an onboard flirtation crashing down: it turns out she’s engaged, and is headed back to America to get married to the very wealthy Kenneth Bradley (Lee Bowman), who’s also her employer.

Michel meets Terry - and learns of Kenneth's existence

On deck the next day, Michel and Terry meet again. When a professional photographer takes a shot of them, Terry realises that their being seen together will lead to gossip (it already has). They try sitting at separate tables, but when the gossip doesn’t abate, give it up—it’s not as if there’s really anything to it. Both of them, after all, are going to be marrying other people. Are in love with other people, as a matter of fact.

Terry and Michel receive cabels from their betrotheds

The ship docks for a couple of hours at Porto Santo in Madeira, and Terry decides to explore the place a bit. Onshore she meets Michel, who springs a surprise: he’s headed uphill to meet his grandmother. Michel tells Terry that his grandfather had been in the diplomatic corps, and his last posting was at Porto Santo. This is where he died, and this is where his grieving widow spends the rest of her life, waiting (a little impatiently) for the day when she may join him. Michel invites Terry to accompany him, and Terry is delighted to accept.

Heading uphill to meet Michel's granny

Michel’s grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya, in a wonderful performance) is frail, kind, and wise. She is ecstatic to see Michel again, and starts off by thinking Terry is Michel’s fiancée. After a brief prayer in the family chapel (Terry asks to go in, and Michel’s granny bulldozes him into going in too), Michel goes off to meet the gardener’s family.

Meanwhile, Terry helps the old lady get a tea-tray ready—and, in the course of the conversation, learns a few things about Michel. It turns out, for instance, that he’s a talented painter…

Terry and Michel's granny have a tete-a-tete over tea

…and his grandmother rubbishes the notion that Michel is merely a wealthy playboy. He is, in her opinion, a good man who just needs the right woman to make him—and her—happy. By the time Michel returns from his visit to the gardener’s, Terry is perhaps a little bit in love with him. Michel urges his grandmother to play the piano for them, and Terry (who used to be a nightclub singer before she got plucked out of obscurity by Kenneth) sings Plaisir d’amour.

At the piano

By the time they leave, everybody (Michel, his grandmother, Terry and me) are a little tearful. Back on the boat, the voyage goes on. And, the night before they are to dock at New York City, Terry and Michel express their love for each other.
Michel has never worked in his life, and is understandably doubtful about his ability to provide for Terry. He therefore asks her for six months—six months in which he’ll be able to prove to himself, and to her, that he is worthy of Terry.

Terry and Michel confess their love for each other

Terry agrees. The next morning, as they’re steaming past the Empire State Building into New York, she promises Michel that six months from now, she’ll meet him at the top of the building. Michel is fervent in promising that he’ll be there.
Though Terry and Michel go through the pretence of being happily reunited with their respective betrotheds, both know that it’s a sham. This is one shipboard romance that’s for keeps.

At the docks, Michel and Irene put on a show

So Michel and Terry part ways for now. Terry goes off to Philadelphia and gets a job in a nightclub (where she sings the exuberant and optimistic Sing my heart):

Terry sings in Philadelphia

While Michel paints: lovely canvases that he gets an agent to try and sell; and advertisement hoardings that pay the bills. And both he and Terry wait impatiently for those six months to pass…

...while Michel paints

On D-Day, Terry is back in New York and barely able to contain her excitement at finally meeting her beloved Michel. She goes to buy a dress at a familiar couturier’s, where the owner discreetly summons Kenneth (thinking that the dress will be charged to Kenneth’s account). By the time Kenneth arrives, Terry has clarified that she’ll be paying for the dress. She’s bubbling over with joy, and rushes off in a taxi after telling Kenneth she’s getting married.

Kenneth meets Terry at the couturier's

She even tells the cabdriver of her upcoming wedding—and is so busy looking up at the Empire State Building that she walks straight into the path of a vehicle.
When Terry comes to in the hospital, she’s told that it may be a long time before she can walk again—if ever. Terry can’t bring herself to saddle Michel with a disabled wife, so she decides not to tell him. He doesn’t know where she is; he may think she’s jilted him—but she will not go to him until she can walk—or run—to him.

Terry decides not to tell Michel of her accident

And Michel, having waited seven hours at the top of the Empire State Building, smoking cigarette after cigarette while looking out at a thunderstorm and waiting for the girl who never came, comes back down to earth, bitter and cynical. And still in love with Terry.

If you’ve seen An Affair to Remember, Bheegi Raat, or Mann, you probably know what happens next. If you haven’t seen any of them, I envy you the first-time opportunity of seeing how this beautiful story unfolds. If you have the option of which one to see, choose Love Affair; it’s definitely the best.

What I liked about this film:
Love Affair is another of those “I like everything about it!” films. It’s gloriously romantic, yet in a witty way that helps it stay above mush; it’s charming, sweet, and oh so very well acted. But if I have to pinpoint one particular rave, it has to be Charles Boyer. His acting is wonderful in this, especially in the last scene. I’ve seen Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember, and I’m a diehard Grant fan, but I have to concede: Boyer’s handling of that last scene is in a class by itself. He’s magnificent.

Charles Boyer in Love Affair

What I didn’t like:
No, I’m not going to nitpick just for the sake of it. Nothing. I love Love Affair. Period.

Little bit of trivia:
Of all the films they made, both Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer cited Love Affair as their favourite.


15 thoughts on “Love Affair (1939)

  1. I haven’t seen this, although strangely enough I’ve seen many of its remakes, mostly the rather… less accomplished ones, like the one Warren Beatty and Annette Bening did in the 90s – although that one was worth watching for Katharine Hepburn alone. I didn’t think much of ‘Mann’ either, although Aamir had some good moments in it. My favourite so far has to be Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in ‘An Affair to Remember’. I love that it’s such a ‘modern’ story and that the protagonists are so… human, and likeable.

    Anyway, back to ‘Love Affair’… I really like Charles Boyer – loved him opposite my favourite Hollywood actress (Bette Davis) in the gloriously melodramatic ‘All This And Heaven Too’, and I love Irene Dunne, so I think this is right up my street, even if I will have join you in envying those who don’t know how it all ends. Must watch it soon.


  2. Still on Charles Boyer, I just found this rather charming quote of his on IMDb: “That love at first sight should happen to me was Life’s most delicious revenge on a self-opinionated fool.” I also just found out he committed suicide 2 days after his wife died in 1978 (after 44 years of marriage). Also quite tragically, his only child committed suicide at the age of 21 while playing Russian roulette after a breakup with his girlfriend – apparently over a misunderstanding of what she meant by “I’m leaving.”

    Not quite sure why I felt the need to share all that here! But.. interesting, huh?


  3. Thankfully, I haven’t seen the Warren Beatty-Annette Bening version, and I didn’t much care for Mann (somehow Manisha Koirala isn’t one of my favourite actresses), although I agree that Aamir had some good moments – he’s a good actor. I think, next to Love Affair, An Affair to Remember is the best. Having recently seen that too, though, I can vouch for the fact that it’s mainly a difference in cast – the script, as far as I remember, is almost identical. Kerr and Grant are wonderful, but I still like Love Affair more!

    Ah, that quote and that fact make me want to see more of Boyer’s work. He sounds like such a nice person (though why that should make a difference, I don’t know!) I guess we all like to think of our onscreen heroes as wonderful people in real life too… and any hint of that is an excuse to rejoice. Am now going off to try and find All This And Heaven Too.


  4. I am so glad you liked this! Charles Boyer is a splendid actor, and certainly way better than Cary Grant in the last scene you mention (Grant gave the impression that he was trying not to laugh!).

    My first introduction to this plot was via the horrid Annette Benning-Warren Beatty one. Back then, I had no idea who Katherine Hepburn was, so I didnt even have the pleasure of enjoying a rare Hepburn re-appearance. When I saw the Cary Grant version, I was amazed at how the same plot could make for such a fun film! How is Bheegi Raat?

    Wish I could get hold of Boyer’s other films. All This, And Heaven Too was melodramatic and Bette Davis was for once not playing a femme fatale, but it was so tragic… The only other one I’ve seen apart from these two is Algiers which is also pretty good.

    DG, thats interesting to know about Boyer. Like Dustedoff, that quote of his makes him sound like a nice person to me, too!


  5. Boyer does sound very nice… something else I found rather sweet when reading about him was about how he was apparently half-bald by his 20s but only wore toupees when he was shooting a film – never when he wasn’t working! I would love to find more of his movies too…


  6. bollyviewer: Thank you for telling me about Love Affair: I just so loved this film! I don’t remember much of Bheegi Raat except that it had basically the same story – though on shore, not at sea. I think Pradeep Kumar was an artist full time in that, not a playboy who also happened to paint well… the main reason I recall the film is that wonderful song, Dil jo na keh sakaa wohi raaz-e-dil.

    DG: Now that’s another fact that endears this guy to me! What a refreshing change from the usual vanity of the film world.

    memsaab: Look out for this one. Unbeatable! :-)


  7. Hi All,
    Does anybody know the real place wher Love Affair on Porto Santo (in 1939) has been taken ? Was that at real Porto Santo ?

    I mean the street where Dunne meets Boyer and then the stairs and little square and little well in the front of the Grandmother’s house.
    I could not find it via Porto santo (google) pictures….to find similar one…

    thank you for any information…it is important …
    I am going to travel there. :)


  8. Robert, the only filming locations I’ve been able to find for Love Affair are all in New York – I think that Porto Santo wasn’t in Madeira. From all the online photos of Porto Santo, though, it looks beautiful! Have a good holiday. :-)


  9. Dustedoff :-) Thank you very much.
    You know, there is still hope.
    It looked such realistic .. . ok.. I have also learned Plaisir d Amour on piano :)

    so, I will have to change holiday and visit some day New York , Empire State Building , 102 floor.

    Is that real 102 floor in 1939 or are we again somewhere in Hollywood that time ?
    Thank you for response :) and I wish you nice day.
    Robert, Czech republic.


  10. I’m not sure if that is the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building – but it just might be, since the Empire State Building is definitely listed as one of the filming locations for Love Affair. So is 5th Avenue.

    If you visit Hollywood and 5th Avenue and the Empire State Building, you should be able to retrace part of the film! ;-) And learning Plaisir d’amour on the piano is good enough. (Though it wasn’t written specifically for Love Affair – it’s a much older song).


  11. You are right . In 1939 the song was already 159 years old (1780) .
    I think we both agree that some music pieces and some movies and actors …are timeless.
    And the best invention of Man is the Time machine :
    the movie .


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