Criterion Review: LOVE AFFAIR (1939)

Leo McCarey’s iconic romance is beautifully restored in this new package

Boyer and Dunne in LOVE AFFAIR.

I’d heard for years about the 1939 film Love Affair, but until now I hadn’t been able to see it — the movie was largely inaccessible, even though it was extremely popular upon release and nominated for a number of Oscars. It was much easier to find director Leo McCarey’s later technicolor remake, An Affair to Remember. When I saw that Criterion was releasing the original romance starring Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth) and Charles Boyer (Gaslight), I leaped at the chance to review the restoration in this Blu-ray package.

If you are vaguely familiar with the plot of An Affair to Remember, then you know the basic story of Love Affair: Man and woman meet aboard an ocean liner and fall in love, even though they are attached to others. They promise that if circumstances allow, they will meet after a period of months at the top of the Empire State Building. Boyer plays Michel, a debonair French playboy who enjoys a lifestyle supported through affairs with wealthy women. Terry McKay (Dunne), a singer with a rich lover and a dry wit, runs into him on the voyage to New York. They flirt, drink pink champagne, and try not to appear to fellow passengers as if they are together.

Dunne’s singing talent, not a surprise to anyone who saw her in Roberta (a musical co-starring Fred Astaire) or The Awful Truth, is again on display here: from an impromptu song accompanied by Michel’s grandmother on piano to an exuberant nightclub performance as Terry strikes out on her own. The actress was classically-trained, and boy, can you tell.

Boyer and Dunne share a sweet chemistry that draws in the viewer. Of course these beautiful people are meant for each other! The two of them practically glow the way cinematographer Rudolph Maté (Gilda, My Favorite Wife) shoots them. A glimpse of hands intertwined shows their growing affection; light and shadow interplay in a chapel scene to emphasize the beauty of a quiet moment. Yet even with the impressive digital restoration process, there’s a slight washed-out fuzziness to the film in a few scenes.

For a romantic comedy made during the years of the Hays Code, Love Affair is almost risque. Michel and Terry are sexually active adults, and the film is barely subtle about that. We learn in one of the special features on this Criterion package that the pivotal car accident was added to keep the film from being censored. Love Affair may not have the cultural staying power of An Affair to Remember, but this original film benefits from a talented team both behind the scenes and onscreen who create a charming romance. Hopefully the access provided through this Criterion release allows more classic film fans to discover the 1939 hit.

The special features on the Criterion BluRay package include:

  • The beautiful digital restoration done by MoMA and Lobster Films
  • A short in which founder of Lobster Films, Serge Bromberg, candidly explains why so few of us had been able to see Love Affair before, as the quality of the prints available were mediocre at best, and how restoration was vital to the work. The contrast between the blurry 16mm used in syndication and the final restoration is astonishing.
  • New interview with critic Farran Smith Nehme on director McCarey and the making of Love Affair. She talks about McCarey’s run of hits in the ’30s, the “writing” process for Love Affair, and the impact of censorship on the final film.
  • Two silent comedy shorts by McCarey: 1925’s Looking for Sally and Mighty Like a Moose from 1926.
  • Two radio adaptations of Love Affair: One co-starring the original performers, and the other pairing Dunne with William Powell!
Previous post SHAWSCOPE VOL. 1: SHAOLIN TEMPLE Cinapse Roundtable Reviews
Next post The Definitive, Uncontestable Ranking of Every Pixar Movie (Part 2)