Today we reminisce about
Affair with a Stranger (1953)
Directed by Roy Rowland
Starring: Jean Simmons & Victor Mature
Playwright William “Bill” Blakeley (Victor Mature) has a new production previewing in Philadelphia and even though the buzz is positive, he wishes to have his wife Carolyn (Jean Simmons) there for support and to act as a lucky charm before the show moves to New York. Unfortunately for him, she is unable to make it due to their son, Timmy, being ill. He understands the situation and is concerned for his son while at the same time feels that Carolyn’s presence is essential. For Bill, his wife has always been a partner in his work projects so he takes her absence as a sort of rejection. Not long after he speaks with Carolyn on the phone, Bill runs into the show’s leading lady, Janet Boothe (Monica Lewis), a buxomy blonde who has eyes for him. Conveniently enough, her hotel room is only a few doors down where Bill is staying. She suggests that they dine together so not to be alone, an idea which he gladly accepts as a friend. It is Janet, on the other hand, who has a different plan – to seduce Bill and become his steady. In fact, she is so bold in her machination that she calls up Lucy Lawson, a gossip reporter who thrives on salacious juice, to announce that Bill and Carolyn Blakeley are going to get a divorce because she is the other woman.
The news does not take long to hit the papers, becoming the talk of the town. Several of Bill and Carolyn’s friends are distressed over the situation and begin to reminisce about the highs and lows in their relationship. We are taken back in time to the very moment of their first meeting.
It is New Year’s Eve in Times Square, either in 1948 or 1949, and Bill stops by a newspaper stand to visit his old friend Pop when he notices a beautiful young woman there to buy a copy of a Toledo newspaper. He quickly uses the opportunity to start a conversation with her and eventually give her an impromptu first kiss of the New Year. Despite their somewhat awkward introduction, Carolyn and Bill start dating. Carolyn, also known as “Lyn”, lives modestly in a small, furnished apartment above an Italian restaurant and earns her living by modelling clothing. Her best friend, Dory, is a fellow colleague who does not trust Bill because he is a starving writer and, in her eyes, a bum. Although Bill used to work for the Buffalo Journal, he is having a hard time finding work and is down on his luck in getting anyone to buy one of his screenplays. Lyn does not seem to be bothered by these things but changes her mind when he blows her off one evening to gamble when he does not have a cent to his name. She announces to Dory that she is going to end things with him. When the two women bump into him at a nearby cafeteria, Lyn is unable to go through with it and continues seeing him. Bill eventually sells a play called Murder Afoot but is paid only $250 for it rather than the usual $500. It is a huge flop and once again he finds himself out-of-work. Hoping to improve Bill’s quality of life and because she loves him, Lyn proposes that they get married and so they become husband and wife.
Several months go by with Lyn continuing to work as a model and with Bill staying at home working on new screenplays in addition to taking care of domestic duties. It becomes a frustrating situation for Bill because he is tired of being supported by her as it makes him feel inferior. He decides to temporarily leave her in order to find himself but is cut short on going through with it when he receives a phone call from a Hollywood studio that wants to buy the picture rights to his play Empty Pockets for $4,000. The money completely lifts Bill’s spirits and puts the couple in a much better financial situation. They have also received news that Lyn is expecting a child. Things seem to be looking up for the Blakeley’s. It does not take long for Lyn to realise that a lump of money is missing from their account and to deduce that Bill has once again been gambling, suffering important losses. With most of their savings gone, Bill decides to take a job as a waiter for the Golden Key restaurant, an upscale Manhattan joint which is known to attract rich and famous clients. One of them is George Blake, a renowned Broadway producer who can make miracles happen for hungry screenwriters like Bill, who slips him a copy of his screenplay while dining. Sure enough, Mr. Blake decides to take a chance on Bill’s screenplay resulting in his first hit.
The play enjoys a long run and Bill is backstage for every performance. It is the end of March when he goes home to find Lyn unwell and in premature labour which is distressing considering that the baby is not due until May. They head the hospital and are greeted by Lyn’s doctor who assures the couple that everything will be fine. In the meantime, Bill heads to a bar across the street to await news. Tragically, Lyn loses the baby and is rendered incapable of bearing more children. She falls into a major depression for which Bill does not know how to help. While in their old neighbourhood, Bill runs into a young boy named Timmy whom Lyn used to care for as a toddler and kindergartner. He invites the boy to come and stay with him and Lyn in their big Long Island Estate while his mother is ill in the hospital. After Timmy’s mother passes away unexpectedly, the Blakeley’s adopt him which particularly thrills Lyn to finally have a child of her own. Taking care of Timmy starts to become the main priority for Lyn who somewhat puts her marriage on the back burner.
Back to present day, both Lyn and Bill must decide how the future of their union will evolve. Will she decide to dedicate more time to her husband all the while providing the same nurturing environment for their son? Will he decide to fend off Ms. Boothe’s advances or will he give in to temptation?
Background & Thoughts
This film sort of came to be by the snap of Howard Hughes’ fingers which quickly assembled a cast and got shooting underway as soon as possible. Jean Simmons did not particularly want to do this film but was forced to do so as a part of an out-of-court settlement that she reached with RKO when she wanted to be let out of her contract. She received no sort of salary or payment for her participation. Her leading man, Victor Mature, was loaned to RKO from 20th Century Fox and assigned to Affair with a Stranger after the initial film for which they wanted him, Split Second, was held back in pre-production. (That film in question was one of two films directed by actor/singer Dick Powell.) Split Second was a noir thriller, a genre to which Mature was very much suited, so some people may feel that he would have fared better in it than in Affair with a Stranger, which was a melodrama with comedic aspects. This is especially true considering that Split Second was better critically received and praised for its direction by novice Powell. Overall, Affair with a Stranger was panned with only Simmons receiving any kind notices for her performance. The rest of the cast, notably Mature, as well as writer Richard Flournoy were criticised for their contributions and the film has become largely forgotten.
I saw this film for the first time several years ago and was immediately taken with the story. Films with flashback sequences, which seemed to be quite prominent in the 1950s, always attract me especially when there is romance involved. Affair with a Stranger is a story about love but moreover it is a story about life. Bill and Lyn Blakeley could represent any number of couples we know in real life, even our own unions, which helps in caring about what happens to the main characters. They started with so little and ended up with so much, not simply monetarily speaking but also in terms of emotional attachment. A very hard aspect they face is the loss of their newborn, a taboo subject that is not common in films of yesteryear or even modern day. While no specific details are given to how and why the baby died, the looks on their faces as they leave the maternity ward speak a thousand words. Some couples might have been completely broken by such a blow but Bill and Lyn grow closer together.
Mixing comedy and drama is not something I find very conventional and it did happen to perplex some of the 1953 critics as they could not understand in which direction the film was going. I felt that same confusion at certain parts which shows the imbalance of comic relief and waging drama. Perhaps if these elements had been more blended together, the end result may have been more appeasing for everyone. Victor Mature was never someone whom I considered to be a comedian type but I will admit that he is very good in two funny scenes. The first is when Bill is first invited to Lyn’s apartment. He is very hungry and sees that she has drumsticks on her kitchen table. Since he has not eaten a proper meal in some time, he takes one and gobbles it down all the while hiding a second on a shelf in the kitchen. The second is when they are at the cafeteria. Bill pitifully makes a concoction of hot water and random condiments to make a “mystery soup” because he does not have the money to buy anything, even a roll. These scenes do make you smile all the while garnering your sympathy to see someone in such a rough spot. Many of us have been starving university students so we know very well about the pain of constant hunger and malnourishment.
My general notion is to go into a new film with no expectations unless, of course, it is a picture that is really well known and celebrated, in which case my initial perception may be slightly swayed. Affair with a Stranger is not the greatest of films yet it is far from being the worst. All the players did what they could with the script and the fact that RKO wanted to have a final product in record time. This film came with a Victor Mature film noir set and I am awfully glad to have it even though the genre is slightly off with the rest of the selections. The pairing of Simmons and Mature makes me eager to see their other joint projects: Androcles and the Lion, The Robe & The Egyptian.
1953 was an amazing year for Jean Simmons. She had five films come out that year and received much critical acclaim for three of those films, earning simultaneous awards for Best Actress from the National Board of Review for each of them. (The three films are: Young Bess, The Robe & The Actress.) This was undoubtedly the height of her career and, for some, also the apex of her overwhelming beauty. Personally, she had married fellow actor Stewart Granger and they were still very much in the honeymoon period of their marriage. Getting out of her RKO contract and signing with a more prestigious studio seemed only natural. After all, the three nominations all came from different studios: MGM & 20th Century Fox. This was made even clearer after she completed her next film for RKO after Affair with a Stranger, the romantic comedy She Couldn’t Say No starring opposite Robert Mitchum. (Ironically, she had starred with Mitchum in RKO 1953 Otto Preminger film noir Angel Face which was a surprise hit.) Jean continued a healthy film career into the mid-1960s, thereafter appearing in made for television films and miniseries.
The first time I ever saw Jean, it was in She Couldn’t Say No and I was happy to discover this wonderful woman who I thought looked very much like Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun. Both women had similar short haircuts and colouring plus they had gorgeous, expressive eyes. Since that time, I have paid attention to any film with her in it. Her performance in Affair with a Stranger is very nice and she was serious in her role. One would never have guessed that she had been a legal fight with RKO only a few shorts months before filming. There are times when you can tell that an actor or actress is not completely invested in a film but not with Jean. She was a consummate professional and a proper lady. She and Victor Mature made a very nice couple, having a great on-screen dynamic and probably laughing quite a bit behind the scenes. My guess is that they really enjoyed working together.
Any Jean fan with surely appreciate this film for what is, hopefully with an open mind and an appreciation to see pretty decent picture. 🙂