Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) didn’t come to post-war Berlin for romance (and she doesn’t fall in love because she’s the only woman amongst her male colleagues). She came as part of a congressional committee to look into the morale of the troops and takes her job seriously, too. It’s that seriousness, and not her gender, that gets her mixed up with Captain John Pringle (John Lund) and her audacity to think she can be honest with him that gives him the idea she can be wooed. What happens in Berlin can’t stay in Berlin if you don’t go home, though, and Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair’s one mistake is not standing by its title and letting the film end at its natural end point.
That would’ve seen Frost board a plane back to Iowa, instead of having the flight be cancelled so she has to stay in Berlin, but it’s not fate that intervenes, or the weather (which would’ve delayed their flight for another twenty minutes) but Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) who lies to make sure that Frost and Pringle have a chance to reconcile.
It’s a happy ending, and one that would be hard to begrudge if it wasn’t so dubious. It assumes that their winding up together is the desired result – a happy ending by default rather than one that considers the people involved and whether they’re right for each other. In his commentary track for Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release, film historian, Joseph McBride, addresses the happy ending, acknowledging that it’s hard to imagine this couple’s future together. Admittedly, romantic comedies have gotten away with less. Guy gets together with a girl for the wrong reasons, then realizes he’s developed real feelings for her.
Maybe if A Foreign Affair (1948)was only concerned with the personal that result would be easier to swallow but it’s not. There are politics mixed up in their relationship as well, making Pringle’s deceptions more serious than cheating on the girl he left behind in Iowa.
At the time, however, that’s the only affair Frost realizes she’s committing, and Iowa means everything to her. Frost originally crosses paths with Pringle because his sweetheart, Dusty, asked her to deliver a cake. It’s one of the reasons Frost trusts Pringle (he’s from Iowa). When she’s sober, she adoringly sings Iowa’s praises and when she’s drunk, she sings the “Iowa Corn Song.” At the end of the movie she laments no longer being objective but, where Iowa’s concerned, she never was, which is how Pringle blindsides her. Her trust in Iowa (and by extension him) ran too deep.
She navigated these kinds of situations before, after all, citing instances where men tried to bribe her and being able to see right through them. Her mink coat example draws to mind another Jean Arthur movie Kino Lorber recently released, Easy Living (1937), where Arthur’s character, Mary, ends up with a free mink coat after inexplicably having one drop on her head during a bus ride. Many people in that situation would say finders keepers, but Mary tries to find the coat’s owner. The only reason she keeps it is he refuses to take it back, yet everyone who sees her in the coat thinks she got it dishonestly – an assumption which couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s why Pringle’s timing for declaring his love for Frost in A Foreign Affair comes across as so false. Frost just confided in him that she was in love with a Southern Democrat, before he tried to sway her vote and she broke things off. Why this story makes Pringle think he should try the same, when it didn’t work, is anybody’s guess, but if Frost knew to be on guard with a Democrat (she’s a Republican), she doesn’t realize Iowans pose any threat. Frost’s entire stance, as a member of the Congressional committee, is that American soldiers shouldn’t date German Fraüleins, but the war is over and, when it comes to liars, there are no sides.
Frost’s black and white views might make her ignorant but she’s not willfully so like Captain Pringle, who deliberately keeps himself in the dark about Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich). A night club singer and former member of the Nazi party, Pringle wouldn’t have to spend so much time burying her records if she didn’t have something to hide. A physical abuser on top of everything else (Pringle pulls Erika’s hair and makes out to choke her), we’re nonetheless left with an ending where he’s back with Frost, despite the airport ending being there for the taking (or, better yet, takeoff).
Circular endings are popular for a reason and if Frost had been allowed to board her plane, A Foreign Affair could’ve ended the same way it began: with a plane transporting the Congressional committee over the city. Instead Frost never leaves, and the foreign affair continues, keeping Frost away from her true love, Iowa.
A Foreign Affair is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.