Love Affair (1939): Leo McCarey’s Superb, Oscar-Nominated Romantic Melodrama, Starring Boyer and Irene Dunne

Love Affair, the first and the best screen version of this often filmed romantic melodrama, was directed by Leo McCarey.

In his approach, McCarey shows his notable great taste and control over the tone, combining sentiment and pathos, serious and comedic moments in equal measures, resulting in sublime entertainment.

The tale centers on two adults, Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer), an artist-playboy engaged to Lois (Astrid Allwyn), and Terry McKay (Irene Dunne), a suave woman who is engaged to Kenneth (Bowman).

Upon meeting accidentally onboard a ship, their mutual attraction is instant.  After flirting for a while and exchanging bon mots, they both realize this is more than just a casual fling, a new acquaintance that might forever change the rest of their lives.  Thus, they resolve to meet in six months, on July 1, at the top of the Empire State Building (then the highest skyscraper) on one condition, that they each feel the same way about each other as they do now.

But tragedy strikes Terry: On her way to meet Michel, getting out of a taxicab she is hit by a car (It’s a tribute to McCarey’s discretion that the accident is heard but not seen).  Proud and noble, she determines not to tell Michel.  Time passes by, and on the fateful day, Michel awaits for Terry for hours at the designated spot.

Months later, Michel runs into Terry at the theater, but she’s seated, and there is no way for him to know that she’s paralyzed and using a wheelchair.  Visiting her at her home, to give her his grandmother’s shawl, Terry is seated at the sofa with her feet covered with a blanket. Michel’s realization of her predicament, through a reflection in the mirror, is one of the film’s most poignant and subtlest moments.

Love Affair contains many splendidly scripted and acted moments–some serio, other comedic, and still other touching.

The feature’s longest and most emotional scene takes place during a visit to Michel’s grandmother Janou (Maria Ouspenskaya), where the two women bond immediately.  Grandma warns Terry of Michel’s womanizing tendencies and fear of commitment, but she also praises his potential as an artist.

McCarey takes his time during this scene, showing how the three characters wander around the house and the garden, and at one point, kneeling in prayer before a religious painting.

Dunne, a trained singer, gets to sing “Plaisir d’Amour,” while grandma plays the piano. Then while bidding farewell, Terry suddenly rushes back to the house embrace the old woman.

Set aboard the ship, the first half of the film is witty and breezy, perhaps because it’s more character-oriented.  The second (and slightly lesser) part is more serious and melodramatic because it’s plot-driven.

As the “other” man and “other” women, the actors have little to do, though they are more sympathetic and less stereotypical than the norm.

But ultimately the film belongs to the two stars, Boyer and Dunne, are both in top form, doing what they do best; Dunne deservedly received an Oscar nomination.  You can spot Joan Leslie, in her fourth film, as an autograph seeker.


End Note

Leo McCarey remade his own film in 1957, retitling it, “An Affair to Remember,” starring Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant.  Then in 1994, Warren Beatty directed a new version with wife-actress Annette Bening and himself in the leads, and Katharine Hepburn as the grandmother, in one of her very last performances.

Oscar Nominations: 

Picture, produced by Leo McCarey

Actress: Irene Dunne

Supporting Actress: Maria Ouspenskaya

Original Story: Mildred Cram and Leo McCarey

Interior Decoration: Van Nest Polgase and Al Herman

Song: Wishing, music and lyrics by Buddy De Sylva

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

“Gone with the Wind,” which swept most of the Oscars in 1939, vied for the top award with nine other films: “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Wuthering Heights.”  Love Affair was one of the year’s biggest losers, failing to win a single award out of six nominations.


Terry McKay (Irene Dunne)

Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer)

Grandmother Janou (Maria Ouspenskaya)

Kenneth Bradley (Lee Bowman)

Lois Clarke (Astrid Allwyn)

Maurice Cobert (Maurice Mosconich)

Boy on the Ship (Scotty Beckett

Autograph Seeker (Joan Leslie)



RKO Release

Produced by Leo McCarey

Directed by Leo McCarey

Screenplay: Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the story by McCarey, Daves, and Mildred Cram.

Camera: Rudolph Mate

Editor: Edward Dmytryk, George Hively

Music: Roy Webb

Art direction: Van Nest Polglase, Al Herman

F/X: Vernon L. Walter

Costume: Howard Greer, Edward Stevenson

Running time: 87 Minutes