An Affair to Remember (1957) is many people’s favorite romantic movie. But many people who love it—as I do—probably don’t notice the many Catholic elements that are part of the story.
I think I first watched An Affair to Remember with my mother and sisters on a big screen in one of the now-long-gone movie palaces with names like “Bijou” or “Roxie” soon after it first came out. Then I might have seen it on a small black and white screen when old movies were played on late night TV during my teen years, when I should have been sleeping and instead was making sure I’d be be late for school the next morning by staying up way past midnight once again.
I’ve watched the movie several times more over the years since then, mostly in less than ideal versions on Youtube. Right now, probably to avoid being taken down for copyright infringement, two weird versions are uploaded on Youtube. In this version, the movie is reversed and the colors faded out. In this version, the movie looks fine, but it is displayed in a small rectangle on a bigger screen.
After multiple viewings, I realized only recently how big a part the Catholic faith plays in transforming the flirtatious attraction of the two gorgeous, amoral characters into love, the kind of real love that waits, and is willing to work and to sacrifice, and seeks its consummation in lifelong marriage and children. I would love to know if any of you reading this have noticed these things also.
The movie doesn’t start out “Catholic.” It starts when the two gorgeous people meet on an ocean liner on its way from Europe to New York and engage in some witty and subtly provocative repartee. (The dialogue is superbly written in this story. They tell each other important things with pauses and ellipses, and sometimes even by saying the exact opposite of what they mean.)
According to news reports being broadcast around the world at the very beginning, Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) is engaged to marry a rich heiress, named Lois Clark, who will be waiting for him when the ship arrives in New York. Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) is a kept woman who was sent by her financier lover, Kenneth Bradley, on a trip to Europe to amuse herself while he finalized a merger in Texas. Ken will be waiting too on the dock when they arrive.
Nickie is shown right off as a cad; by pretending to have a bad ship-to-shore telephone connection, he succeeds in cutting off Gabriella, a beautiful woman who called him from Paris. Gabriella is angry and hurt, and he doesn’t have any excuse why he professed to love her during a three-night tryst on her yacht while he was engaged to her best friend—which she just learned about when the engagement was broadcast on the French news.
Nickie tries to seduce Terry too when they first meet. He gets her to talk with him privately in her cabin with a smooth line that he is in trouble, but once inside he reveals that his trouble is merely that he cannot bear to be bored. He moves in close to proposition her, but he doesn’t promise love or marriage or anything except the transitory pleasures of amorously passing the next few days with him until they land.
“Don’t you think that life should be gay and bright and bubbly like champagne? Is there any reason why the rest of this cruise cannot be like pink champagne?”
“Yes,” Terry answers, firmly, to the second question, and she points to a framed photo of a handsome man placed a lamp table behind him.
“Lucky fellow. He must be a remarkable man,” Nickie says. Terry replies, “Well, you can image how attractive he is when I can resist so charming a person as …”
After she has established her limits, she realizes he is embarrassed. She accepts his invitation to dinner, obviously because the temptation to spend time with such a highly attractive companion is too much to refuse, at least at first.
Their first night at dinner, they talk banteringly about his life, and she playfully suggests his nurse must have read him bedtime stories from the life of Casanova.
The next day on deck, Terry tells Nickie her own story. Kenneth, the man she has been living with for the past five years, found her singing in a night club, her first job after she left home. Ken told her she didn’t belong in a place like that and offered to set her up in a penthouse so she could improve herself with the study of art and literature—with the implication that one day she “would be a charming and lovely wife.” But the marriage proposal never came. In the meantime, she has gotten used to designer clothes, furs, jewels, and penthouse living with Ken.
Nickie probes to find out more about the “other pages” in Terry’s life story, and she says that was the only page. In other words, Ken was her only lover.
I was only twelve when I first saw the film, and I was a bit taken aback that a woman who the vernacular of the day would refer to as a fallen woman was the heroine. In that era, the double standard was still strong, and even though it was a bit risqué back then to portray Terry as a kept woman, to portray Terry with more than one lover in her past would have lowered her too far in people’s eyes.
When a photographer surprises them and snaps their photo while they talk on the deck, Terry says that she should avoid getting her picture in the newspapers. They both know such a thing would damage her reputation, while only enhancing his. Besides, everyone on the ship is staring at them whenever they get close. They reluctantly resolve to stay away from each other to squelch more gossip, but the more they try, the more they keep running into each other.
When they inadvertently bump into each other in the pool one morning, Terry asks Nickie whether he is going ashore when the boat docks that afternoon for five hours on the French Riviera. He tells her he is going to visit a lady, and she teases him and implies he has a woman in every port. When he tells her the lady is his grandmother, she scoffs, and he invites her to come with him to to see he is telling the truth.
The Story Becomes Catholic
On shore, the couple rides a horse-drawn taxi partway up a high hill and then walk up some stairs the rest of the way to the top. While they stroll into a lovely garden with a spectacular view of the harbor, Terry exclaims, “Oh, what a divine place!” This little clue marks the point where the story starts to turn Catholic.
Nickie calls out “Janou, Janou,” which may either be a French nickname for his grand-mere or her first name, but they cannot find her in her house. Then they see the grandmother’s dog is lying in wait outside of a door in a Gothic archway. “She must be in the chapel,” Nickie says.
Terry muses, “What is it about this place? There is something about it that makes you want to whisper. It’s so peaceful here. It’s like another world.“
”Well it is. It’s my grandmother’s world.” Nickie tells Terry that his grandfather was in the diplomatic service, and that when he retired they came here to live. “He’s buried there behind the chapel. She stayed on to be near him. She must be waiting I think a little impatiently for the day she will join him.”
Gradually, a shining ideal of the kind of committed bond between a man and woman that lasts a lifetime starts to take shape before their eyes.
When she realizes he really is there to see his grandmother, she drops her mocking tone. Both of them start to look at each other differently. The banter is gone, and there is a new tenderness in how they look at and treat each other.
Nickie slips out of his urbane playboy persona and becomes more appealing as a man when he plays with the dog, Fidel, embraces and is embraced by and petted over by his grandmother, and when he lifts up the gardener’s little daughter and carries her around. Terry changes too, from the brittle, knowing, sophisticate; she becomes enthusiastic about everything, more affectionate, and open like a child. The proverbial stars start shining in her eyes.
As Nickie and his grandmother coo affectionately at each other, the grandmother glimpses Terry over Nickie’s shoulder, and she asks in French if Terry is the woman Nickie is engaged to marry. This remark acts as another little crystal that helps precipitate a shift in how they view themselves—until they start to see themselves as a couple who might have a married future ahead of them too.
Janou tells Terry she likes her very much. She asks pardon that she needs to sit down. She tells Nickie, “I’m longer with my prayers these days, and my knees they are as old as I am.” When Terry says that the chapel looks charming, Janou says, “Would you like to go inside?”
Left alone with Nickie, the grandmother sends him after Terry. “How long has it been for you? Since you were an altar boy? Then it won’t hurt for you to go inside too.”
Going to the Chapel
When Nickie enters the chapel, Terry is kneeling and gazing up at a large statue of Our Lady above the altar. She folds her hands and prays. Nickie kneels next to her, looks uncomfortable, but also thoughtful and a little sad. Terry blesses herself as she rises. Nickie starts to make the sign of the cross too, and then stops himself self-consciously and straightens his tie. They are both awkward and more reserved with each other after they leave the chapel.
Nickie briefly goes off to visit with the gardener and his wife and meet the other two of the latest three of the gardener’s seven daughters, since the latest three were born since he last visited. Now again, the image of a loving marriage, this time with seven children, is placed before them.
Terry helps Grandmother Janou prepare the tea tray, and Terry remarks she comes from a family of ten children, which is how she learned to do her share. Then Terry notices a beautiful landscape painting and is surprised to learn that Nickie had painted it.
The grandmother regrets he never sticks to anything because he is so good at everything. “Besides he has been too busy, living, as they call it.”
“Everything comes too easily to him. He is always attracted by the art he isn’t practicing. The place he hasn’t been. The girl he hasn’t met.”
Terry says, “Perhaps I shouldn’t have met him.”
“No, my dear. You are different,” the grandmother tells Terry, “I’ve been worried about him. Sometimes I’m frightened that life will present a bill to Niccolo one day and he will find it hard to pay. But when I see you with him, I feel better.”
Janou adds significantly, “There is nothing wrong with Niccolo that a good woman couldn’t make right.” She drops hints that she wants the two of them to marry and that even though her grandson is engaged to someone else, anything can happen on the rest of the voyage, while they both smile.
When they leave holding hands, she tells them, “God bless you.”
We Changed Our Course Today
Later back on the ship in the evening on one of the promenades, they meet again. She tells him, “I want to thank you for the loveliest and the most memorable day I’ve ever known.” They walk together for a while and share their first and only shipboard kiss.
Terry says, “We are heading into a rough sea, Nickie.”
“I know. We changed our course today.”
To stay out of temptation, they say goodnight and separate. Their flirtation has turned into love.
The next time they meet, Nickie blurts out, “I’ve never done a day’s work in my life…. I want to be worthy to ask you to marry me.”
“Now or never,” they agree. “We’d be fools to let happiness pass us by,” Nickie says.
She tells him that she has to think it over and will tell him in the morning “Marriage is a very serious step for a girl like me.”
“Do you like children?” she asks him over her shoulder as she leaves him for her cabin. “Yes, yes I do,” he says sincerely. She smiles.
During one more hasty meeting before the ship docks in New York, they plan to separate for a time. He wants to prove he can settle down and make something of himself, and she wants to prove she can give up her pampered immoral lifestyle, stand on her own feet, and be a “good girl.” They plan to meet again at the top of the Empire State Building in six months. She tells him, “It’s the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York.”
The Miracle of Grace
There is no need to rehash the rest of the plot. The miracle of grace has done its work. It is heartwarming for me to see how the couple’s visit to Nikki’s praying grandmother in her “divine place” inspired them to cut their ties with their former way of life. The visit turns two fallen away Catholics away from a life of immorality and sets them on a path to where true happiness lies. After almost losing each other on the path to true love, they find each other again—on Christmas.
Now that’s what I call a happy-ever-after ending!
A movie can be both classic and Catholic, after all.