HE waits anxiously at a prearranged location. (He’s going to propose.) SHE is rushing to meet him. (And planning to say yes.) But she’s hit by a car on the way there and whisked off to hospital. Leo McCarey’s LOVE AFFAIR/’39, or his redo AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER/’57? Nope, it’s a late silent from Japanese director Mikio Naruse; and the missed rendezvous isn’t the climax of Act Two, but a stepping off point for the main plot which winds up being more of a Douglas Sirk melodramatic tragedy than comic-tinged romance. Here, the girl’s a waitress in a pancake joint, and the initial boyfriend drifts off from the story after he’s stood up, replaced by the careless driver who turns out to be the rich scion of a well-placed family. He falls for the quiet, charmer he injured, but Mom & his horrid sister refuse to accept this working class girl who doesn’t know how to how to treat the house servants or even how to dress. Naruse probably over-stuffs his film with sub-plots, some quite fun like the starving artist neighbor, others puerile women’s magazine fodder like a proffered movie contract, a dramatic digression that goes nowhere. But the film quickly hooks you, in spite of some missing footage, wrapping up with fatalistic grace stunningly handled by Naruse with some unexpected vigorous editing. A rare treat, one of a Criterion trio of silent era Naruse.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In Japan, silent films were often shown with a live narrator/storyteller, a Benshi, many popular enough to have their own following. (Akira Kurosawa’s brother was a well-known one.) And it must have figured into why silent film lasted a few extra years over there. (Why hasn't some company tried to recreate the practice on a DVD's alternate audio track?) But note that when Naruse sends his lovers to the movies, they go to see Lubitsch’s wonderful early Talkie Musical THE SMILING LIEUTENANT/’31, presumably with sound.
DOUBLE-BILL: F. W. Murnau’s unfathomably great, unaccountably forgotten CITY GIRL/’30, another late silent, also takes a coffee shop girl (and what a coffee shop!) away from the workplace with an unexpected marriage, but to a farm boy. (Avoid all Public Domain prints; look for the MURNAU @ FOX box set.)