Leo McCarey (1898–1969) was a key figure in 1930s Hollywood. We have previously shown two of his Laurel and Hardy shorts; Duck Soup (1933), with the Marx Brothers; and his melancholy meditation on old age, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). Although we did not include it, The Awful Truth, from the same year, is one of the best screwball comedies, and he made several other noteworthy films during his best decade.
The first half of Love Affair (1939) is probably as good as anything McCarey ever did. Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne, and Maria Ouspenskaya cast a mature romantic spell worthy of Chaplin, Renoir, or Ophuls. The actors inhabit a world of misty ship decks, sunlit Madeira gardens, and silent chapels where “it’s a good place to sit and remember.” Ouspenskaya tells Dunne she is still young and must create her own memories, and she offers up Boyer (her grandson): “There is nothing wrong with Michel that a good woman could not make right.” It is almost too beautiful.
By the very necessities of its contrived plot, however, Love Affair begins to fall apart. The two lovers are separated from each other for an interminable 30 minutes of screen time, and grandma dies. There is a foretaste of the heavy-handed religiosity that was to afflict much of McCarey’s later work; Dunne confesses to a priest what a bad girl she had previously been, and fawns over some orphanage brats who seem to be auditioning for McCarey’s saccharine The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945).
In the final scene of reconciliation and reunion, McCarey attempts to recoup the ground he has lost, predictably through reliance on his stars’ chemistry. It is a great testament to the director’s faith in an actors’ cinema that this scene—an entire reel of screen time—is realized almost entirely by interaction and dialogue between Dunne and Boyer. The only device is the painting of Dunne and Ouspenskaya by Boyer, which serves essentially the same purpose as the portrait of Janet Gaynor as the Madonna in Frank Borzage’s Street Angel (1928). Ultimately, we are re-convinced that the Boyer/Dunne romance is true and sure and they will conquer the adversity imposed by the plot. The movie has left us happy, for in the wonderfully romantic world of Leo McCarey circa 1939 (as the orphans’ song goes), “wishing will make it so.”
The director’s prominence was as fleeting as the tenuous equipoise between his very genuine talent and his increasing Catholic sentimentality. The latter would eventually burgeon into a quasi-fascistic anti-intellectualism during the McCarthyite 1950s, and would obliterate much of his art. His two Bing Crosby vehicles (Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s) were very popular in the mid-1940s, and he did a more-or-less successful remake of Love Affair, An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in 1957, but he made only five other films in the last three decades of his life—none possessing the élan of his 1930s work.