Monday, November 7, 2011

Three Should-Be Thrice-Told Tales, Part 1

Being the sort of person who regularly makes outlandish claims like "Tangled is the best chick flick in the last fifteen years" and "The Incredibles is the most psychologically satisfying drama in the last decade" and "Inception is the most stultifying attempt at cinematic philosophizing since I can't think when," I don't enjoy many modern movies. Oh for the days when female stars could be feminine and tough!
Just contrast Hillary Swank with Katherine Hepburn

or Barbara Stanwyck.

And if the word "feminine" brings to mind images of Jennifer Lopez, think again—think Donna Reed

or Grace Kelly.

You're welcome.

What I really miss from old movies is not the atmosphere or the actors—though I will admit a sneaking fondness for Sydney Greenstreet—but the stories. Don't believe the people who tell you that old movies are all pretty white fences and Rogers and Hammerstein. They dealt with adult subjects; they simply dealt with them in an adult way, without adolescent voyeurism. Good and evil were real for the writers of that era; the subtlety and fascination of their dramas depended not on a confusion of good and evil but on the characters' difficulties in choosing between the two. This is the secret of ages possessed of—possessed by—absolute morality: that only in such ages can real intra-personal conflict be possible, and only on the grounds of such conflict can great art be made. No real drama can be wrung from an age where the worst evil imaginable is to hurt another person's feelings.

This is particularly true in the area of love and marriage. When an old movie marriage or engagement went on the rocks, the questions facing the protagonist were not just "Does this relationship fulfill me more than that one?" or "How do I win this person?" but also "Is it right to pursue this relationship? Is this person with whom I am madly in love a good person? a good person for me? will I be a good person if I pursue them? if I pursue them in this way?" Choices, choices!

In 1939 Leo McCarey made a movie called Love Affair, staring then box-office darlings Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. The movie was remade in 1957 as An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the leading roles. In 1994 it was remade a third time, once again under the title Love Affair, but with a script that diverged significantly from the earlier ones. This last remake, starring Warren Beaty and Annette Bening, with Katherine Hepburn in a small supporting role (it was her last movie appearance) was a critical and box office failure, grossing less than a third of the $60 million it cost to make, and earning a Razzie Award.

Every flop has its cult, however, and every good movie its detractors. One reviewer on IMDB had this to say while praising Beatie's version of the story:

I do not know the 1939 version, but I do the '57 version [An Affair to Remember] with Cary Grant. It's not just mawkish and cheap, it's offensive, even vile. The method of presentation depends not on the love, but on the helplessness of the pair. They are quite literally prostitutes, professional paid escorts. He is enchanted by her primarily because she didn't show at the rendezvous and since no one had ever turned him down before he fell in "love" hard, because of the chase.

Well! So much for Grant and Kerr—and so much, incidentally, for Boyer and Dunne as well. "They are quite literally prostitutes." This is a bad thing? I thought we weren't supposed to be so ... judgmental. "He is enchanted by her ... because of the chase." What else is new?

What the reviewer ignores, or perhaps does not recognize, is that An Affair to Remember (as well as its precursor of 1939) is about far more than love accidentally found, accidentally lost, and accidentally found again—which is what the Beatty version with its gutted script comes down to. Grant and Kerr are certainly no angels. Kerr is a formerly naive night club singer who has become the mistress of a successful businessman. Grant is a wealthy playboy who has finally engaged himself to marry an even wealthier woman whom he does not love. Kerr and Grant meet on a westbound Atlantic cruise ship, she en route to reunite with her "friend" and he en route to slide his reluctant finger into the ring.

They meet; Grant pursues; Kerr avoids him—not because she's trying to get him to "chase" her, but because she is loyal to her businessman. He's been trusting and financially generous towards her, and she's not about to betray his generosity and trust by beginning an affair with Grant, even if she wants to.

Grant is intrigued, and—what's more—he comes to respect Kerr for her loyalty. When their ocean liner stops off at an island, he takes Kerr to see an aunt of his who lives there; and the aunt, a former pianist, makes quick friends with Kerr, playing her a French song that Grant knows.

This beautiful love that can not die,
Will be for us a sweet memory;
It was ardently promised in the first kiss
That binds us both for eternity.
On a beautiful love, always growing,
That will stand the test of time,
Find joy, resting in my arms.
Whether or not we live out our great love,
An affair of the heart one does not forget.

With this little bit of auntocratic match-making completed, Grant and Kerr land in New York.

Now the modern thing for them to do would be to consummate their emotional affair physically, possibly while stringing on their former flames—just to see if things work out, you know? But Grant and Kerr love each other too much for that.

That sentence is unthinkable in the modern mind. They love each other too much have an affair. Each one thinks the other is worth more than a "let's just see if things works out." What both Grant and Kerr want is to permanently commit themselves, to "live out their great love" that "binds them both for eternity." They want marriage. Because of the way they have lived, however, Grant and Kerr both will first have to learn a new lifestyle. There will be no more "prostitution," and none of the luxuries, fiscal or physical, that they had previously enjoyed. Because each values the other, each wants to show to the other that he or she is worth giving up everything for—and each also wants to prove that he or she is capable of giving everything up. Each wants to prove, has to prove, that their "beautiful love, always growing" will "stand the test of time," labor, poverty, distance, silence.

They make a pact. They agree to separate for one year, during which they will not communicate. They will each earn their own living, he apart from his fortune and she apart from her "friend's" assistance. At the end of the year they will meet on top of the Empire State Building, and then ...

You'll just have to watch the movie. Half of it's still left.

I admit the obvious: the characters Grant and Kerr played were sinners. But go see the story, watch it through to the credits, and then ask yourself at the end whether they are not both magnificently redeemed.

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