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.

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