Poems & stories

Marni Nixon: An Affair to Remember

My husband once shared an elevator with George Clinton at the Hilton in Nice. He managed to say something like “how’s it going?”, to which the singer replied, “fine, how are you going?”. If there was such a thing as personal hero elevator tickets, I’d have picked the late chanteuse Marni Nixon (1930-2016). I came across her name for the first time as a mature age cinema student in Paris. I’d enrolled in the course to improve my french, and was delighted by a first semester reconnaissance with la comedie musicale. I’d never watched a musical for any reason that wasn’t sentimental. Our history professor bounced, literally, into every lesson, determined to explode our preconceptions of the genre. He wet our appetite with Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1935, bringing our attention to the pioneering camerawork and choreography. He acquainted a mostly skeptical audience to melodrama, a charming melange of music and drama. I immediately went and bought copies of An Affair to Remember (1957), the “chick film” as Tom Hanks refers to it in Sleepless in Seattle. “This film will make you cry”, promises our professor as he pushes play and cranks the volume. Bright pink squiggly letters fill the screen with CARY GRANT and DEBORAH KERR, accompanied by jubilant horns and Vic Damone singing Harry Warren’s Love Affair. It isn’t the English version of the song which evokes tears chez moi. It’s later on in the film, when Grant and Kerr are visiting Janou (Grant’s grandmother) at her place in the south of France. The old lady is tinkling away at her piano when Kerr picks up the songbook and spontaneously sings :

Ce bel amour, qui ne peut mourir
Sera pour nous un doux souvenir,
Promesse ardente du premier baiser,
Qui nous lie, tous deux, pour l’éternité

D’un bel amour toujours grandissant
Qui défiera les épreuves du temps.
Trouvons la joie, reste dans mes bras…

This is the first time Nixon’s voice is heard in the film, pure and sweet as a bell. It doesn’t matter that Kerr is miming — her soft glances towards Grant when she sings eternité, have a fondu-like effect. Marni makes us fall in love with Deborah, and Deborah with Marni. The lyrics traverse the barrier of language, ignorance makes space for charm and imagination. The best and worst part of the scene is that we never hear le fin of the song, tragically cut short by the sound of the ship’s distant siren. On a hunt for the full version of the French ballad (perhaps Fox never recorded one), the closest I can find is this amateur recording on Youtube. The singer is technically sound but her limp posture and dazed expression leave us longing for Marni. A better solution (and perhaps the only), is to watch and re-watch this true gem, the original, until it becomes a permanent memory.

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