AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, AN – Blu-ray review

It didn’t win any major awards.

Most critics and audiences only gave it marks in the 7 out of 10 range.

But somehow, “An Affair to Remember” has emerged as an iconic American romance, alluded to in “Sleepless in Seattle” and countless other films (and parodies). The American Film Institute even ranked it Number 5 on their Top 100 Greatest Love Stories list–right behind “Casablanca,” “Gone with the Wind,” “West Side Story,” and “Roman Holiday.”

Clip: Most Eligible Bachelor

“An Affair to Remember” was daring for 1957, because it paired two people who were engaged to be married . . . to other people. Their shipboard romance, with an ill-fated twist to follow, gave audiences an older, more sophisticated American version of Shakespeare’s star-crossed teen lovers, with the plot turning on a massive misunderstanding and a true-love tragedy that wasn’t so darned final.

“Affair” also has an air of class about it, with Cary Grant suave as ever as the media-dogged playboy Nickie Ferrante and Deborah Kerr just as classy as Terry McKay, the former nightclub singer who put her career aside so she could marry a steady, career-oriented man (Richard Denning). It’s one of those films that epitomizes Hollywood style.

Nickie (coming on to a straight-faced Terry): “Tell me. Did you write the song ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’?”
Terry: (smiles) “No, but I’m thinking of writing one called ‘Moon Over La Gabriella.’ Do you think it will ever take the place of night baseball?”

What stands out more than 50 years later is that “An Affair to Remember” feels like two films. The first half is breezy, while the second borders on cheesy. When Nickie and Terry meet aboard the SS Constitution on the way back from Europe, the snappy patter and flirtatious banter is as good as it gets. (“It’s not my fault I’m prudish, but my mother told me never to enter a man’s bedroom in months ending in “R.”) The exchanges are so appealing that you realize just how fine the writing is . . . and wonder why don’t they make them like this anymore. Like a good romantic comedy, the first half is ripe with star chemistry and great comic timing. But once the pair leaves the ship, vowing to meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building, the film turns into a melodrama, and inexplicably the style evaporates somewhat, displaced by a change in tone and by two cutesy numbers sung by a children’s chorus.

Director Leo McCarey (“Duck Soup,” “Going My Way”) stayed pretty close to the script from an earlier film, “Love Affair” (1939), which starred Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. The first half of the film derives its energy from McCarey, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Delmer Daves’ sharp writing, while the second is driven more by Hugo Friedhofer’s weepy score and by Harry Warren’s Oscar-nominated song “An Affair to Remember (Our Love Affair)”–which, by the way, is sung or performed every chance anyone gets.

The one constant is Kerr and Grant’s performances, which, even in the melodramatic moments, elevate the material. Cathleen Nesbitt is also outstanding as Nickie’s grandmother, and the French Riviera location scenery is gorgeous.

“An Affair to Remember” received Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Song, and Best Score, and earned a Director’s Guild nomination for McCarey. It’s not rated, but there’s nothing here that the entire family can’t see. Whether it holds their interest is another matter. But with Valentine’s Day coming up, the main audience–romantics at heart–will be glad to get this on Blu-ray Digibook, despite (or maybe because of?) what John J. Puccio described in his review as “unabashed schmaltz.”

“An Affair to Remember” looks good for it’s age and time–early color CinemaScope–but by today’s standards it’s pretty uneven. Some scenes are more pristine than others, which can have more grain than most Blu-ray fans are used to. There’s also a little vertical banding in some scenes, and the pattern that emerges is that the most problematic surfaces for the transfer to Hi-Def are expansive “negative space” surfaces like walls and wide pillars. There’s much more grain on those spaces. Meanwhile, in close-ups and interiors with controlled lighting you’re reminded of how good it looks for a 1957 title, with bright, pleasingly saturated colors, lots of detail, okay black levels, and a slight 3D effect. “Affair” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, brought to 50GB Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that seems to come with no additional artifactual baggage.

Home audiences have their choice of an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio or an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix, neither of which is perfect. There’s a little distortion in some scenes, but the music backdrop sounds clear and unfettered, as does dialogue. Don’t look for much in the way of ambient sound, though, because it was studio-recorded. I preferred the default DTS-HD track, which, distributing the sound across more channels, made for a slightly richer experience. Additional Audio options are French 2.0 Stereo and Spanish Mono, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. Odd, since parts of the film were shot in France.

All of the bonus features come from previous DVD releases, and are presented in standard definition. The audio commentary by singer Marni Nixon (who was Kerr’s singing voice, as she was her singing voice in “The King and I”) and film historian Joseph McBride is worth a listen, though McBride tends to dominate. “AMC Backstory: An Affair to Remember” is a nice round-up of the feature, one I’d actually recommend watching before the film. Originally broadcast on AMC TV, it runs 24 minutes. The other longer features concern the director and producer. “Directed by Leo McCarey” (22 min.) offers a group of film historians and directors talking about the celebrated director, while “A Producer to Remember: Jerry Wald” (16 min.) offers a remembrance from Wald’s family. Grant’s and Kerr’s spouses turn up on short features as well, with Peter Viertel (5 min.) revealing that Kerr was in an unhappy marriage at the time of filming and Barbara Jaynes talking about her life with Grant (9 min.). I thoroughly enjoyed “The Look of An Affair to Remember” (9 min.), which addresses the film’s visual style, a Fox Movietone newsreel about the film’s shipboard premiere.

Rounding out the bonus features is the theatrical trailer and, of course, the sturdy 24-page Digibook itself. The pages are printed in full color on heavy, coated stock, but the disc, unfortunately, is tucked inside a cardboard hollow rather than snapped onto plastic. I have yet to figure out how to remove and replace the disc without touching the playing side of the disc. In addition to full-page, full-bleed, full-color photos, there’s a cast page, a “welcome aboard” intro/summary, brief features on Grant, Kerr, and McCarey, and an unsigned essay on “The Real Price of Persuasion” which attempts to get at what makes the film so popular, even though aspects of it are hard to believe.

Bottom Line:
I’m not sure that I’d rank “An Affair to Remember” above “Dr. Zhivago,” as AFI did, but it’s still one of the best romantic dramas that American filmmakers have produced. If the whole film was as snappily written as the first half, it would be a knockout. Even so, “An Affair to Remember” is a solid film that showcases two stars with great chemistry and style and handles sentimentality with some class. Before TV soaps gave melodrama a bad name, “An Affair to Remember” was one of the best examples.