Charles Boyer, Eyes Wide Open in Love Affair (1939)

By:Megan McGurk

Irene Dunne’s gift in a dramatic scene often pronounces itself in an utter disavowal of self-pity. Whether she was bereft with loneliness in Back Street (1932), blind in Magnificent Obsession (1935), saying a final farewell to the man she loved in When Tomorrow Comes (1939), or raising a baby alone in Unfinished Business (1941), she never succumbed to a woe-is-me wallow. She was too concerned with empathy for another player or how to best carry on. She has a line that drops from the remake, which makes the final scene more devastating. When Charles Boyer figures out what happened on the day she failed to meet him and starts toward to bedroom to find the painting and wheelchair, Dunne leans forward and asks him what time his boat sails in a light voice, as one last attempt to spare him the truth and allow him to leave her dreary apartment none the wiser. She’s not so preoccupied with her own situation that she loses sight of what the truth will do to the man she loves. For some reason, Deborah Kerr omits this bit of business in the remake and remains placid on the sofa, waiting for Cary Grant to discover the tell-tale sign of her tragic accident.

In an interview with James Bawden in 1974, Dunne recalled watching the film in a retrospective, and that afterward she rang Boyer to tell him how much she had enjoyed his performance. He replied so you finally saw me! He spent much of his career supporting women onscreen. Dunne shared a memory of how Boyer used to joke that it was time to get a haircut when he was in a picture co-starring with a lead actress. He said that the camera always lingered on the back of his head during a clinch, so he had to make sure it was tidy. Boyer’s masterclass underplay may have been easy to miss for a co-star, but no one in the audience could miss his deeply affecting performance of a man who had loved and lost.

The script for the final scene of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) remains almost identical in the director’s remake, An Affair to Remember (1957), but the scenes vary dramatically in each leading man’s delivery. As Nicky Ferrante, Cary Grant plays the scene in an altogether different emotional pitch from Charles Boyer’s Michel Marnet. Close up, there’s little to recommend Grant’s vanity-riddled performance over the rich emotional panoply Boyer gifts to viewers. Grant renders elevator music from Boyer’s grand symphony.

Deborah Kerr, as Terry McKay, settles alone on a sofa with a book when Grant turns up at her door. Cary Grant paces Terry’s flat like he owns the place, trying to dominate the space and overwhelm the supine lady under a blanket. Aggrieved and bitter, Grant’s crabby demeanour casts a gloomy lover’s reunion. He’s sarcastic with those little huh-huh- huh exhalations that call the lady out as a liar, one who’s not to be trusted. The old ‘will he slap or kiss her?’ tone from a spurned lover holds limited appeal in a woman’s picture. Ham-fisted actors such as Spencer Tracy and Fredric March use glib anger as their default setting for any blip in what they anticipate as a plot’s romantic trajectory. When a lady fails to behave as expected, they embroil an angry attitude—a choice that just seems like a lazy response to affairs of the heart. How did women tolerate playing next to men who acted hell-bent on socking them when it was time for a tête-à- tête? More to the point, an irascible stance indicates a coward. If you just smother a range of emotional responses with hot-headed shorthand for masculinity, women in the audience know they’re sold a cheap bill of goods.

Grant apologists might argue that he plays the scene in this manner in order to create dramatic tension for the unravelling, when he realises the truth about why she didn’t keep their rendezvous. In other words, Grant sets himself up to be the bad guy so we develop more empathy for Deborah Kerr’s character. But Grant’s reaction to the painting in her bedroom, which identifies Kerr as a poor woman in a wheelchair, thwarts a promise of emotional crescendo in the moment. We need to witness his self-reproach.

When Grant opens the bedroom door and sees his own painting, his reaction conveys a fatal flaw: he not only looks away and closes his eyes, he keeps them shut for a few seconds, as if to demonstrate that he can’t bear the sight of Terry’s misfortune. He protects himself from her pain with his eyes shut tight. Women in the audience should object to Grant’s refusal to witness Terry’s plight. A measure of pure conceit, Grant’s closed-eye response makes what happened to Terry all about him, which by the way remains anathema to the spirit of woman’s pictures. His interpretation of the scene strips its emotional veracity. Grant denies us the spectacle of male emotion; instead of empathy for Terry’s anguish or an expression of remorse for his selfish behaviour, he avoids it lids down, an inconstant lover’s ploy. He rushes through reaction and moves out of the bedroom in a hasty manner. The whole segment in Terry’s bedroom passes in less than twenty seconds. Even though An Affair to Remember runs thirty minutes longer than the original, the final scene’s truncated form feels like a cheat.

Charles Boyer, by contrast, offers a revelation in male emotional display. Boyer’s stalwart performances in woman’s pictures exist without true rival. When Boyer enters Irene Dunne’s modest flat, he looks wistful. Boyer’s not angry; he’s gutted. Clearly, he still loves her. He doesn’t want to hide behind wounded pride. His eyes stay riveted on Dunne’s Terry McKay, and slide down covertly to her legs as a signal that he finally connects what prevented Terry from keeping their date on top the Empire State building. Boyer’s eyes are as expressive as any of the grand dames of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and he knew how to draw viewers in with them, rather than rely on scenery chewing or cheap physical tricks.

In the lady’s bedroom, when he looks at the painting, Boyer’s face registers a full array of reactions to what happened to Terry. He has difficulty swallowing. Boyer’s emotional spectrum includes shock, remorse, shame, guilt, empathy and deep regret for her suffering. His eyes flutter and we can see that he’s chastened for thinking of himself, for being petty and self-absorbed when Terry couldn’t walk. Boyer’s head issues a bare suggestion of a shake from side to side in self-recrimination. We can hear his thoughts. ‘You fool!’ he thinks. ‘She was stuck in a chair—alone!’ Waves of emotion stir across his face. Since Terry had been brave and soldiered on, he would bear it. Head on. Eyes open. He’ll be present for Terry. Boyer contemplates Terry’s fate for nearly 45 seconds without flinching or shielding himself from the truth about her injury. He isn’t afraid to have and show feelings. When Dunne’s Terry tells him she was struck down while looking up at the top floor where they were to meet and adds ‘it was the nearest thing to heaven. You see, you were there.’ We can only agree through tears: ‘you said it, sister.’

Listen back to my podcast episode 57 on Love Affair