The Awful Truth
Leo McCarey’s screwball comedy is celebrated as one of the definitive entries in the genre, although it’s biggest claim to fame is cementing the comic Cary Grant persona that would truly identify him as a star (albeit, Topper came out first, the same year, and was also a hit, one that spawned several sequels). The premise, of a couple seeking a divorce only to reunite when they realise they can’t live without each other, is essentially Hayes Code proof, which may explain the levels of innuendo that went uncensored. It’s also a much-used idea; even Hitchcock would employ it when he attempted the genre with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The Awful Truth is altogether more successful and lighter on its feet.
Jerry: How can you know how it feels to have used up the best years of a woman’s life?
That would likely be explained in part by the complete disparity in styles between Hitchcock and McCarey. One meticulous in order and planning, the other embracing unusual informality and improvisation. Viña Delmar is the credited screenwriter, but it has been suggested the only element of the script retained was the assumed infidelity of each partner. That lack of script, along with the non-traditional working methods (swapping stories as a means of inspiration) raised considerable eyebrows, not only with the cast but also studio head Harry Cohn. Grant tried to get out of the film and/or swap roles with co-star Ralph Bellamy, and McCarey was later said to have considered him clueless over what made for good comedy (it’s variously reported that McCarey was offended or approved Grant’s persona here, shaped by his McCarey imitation).
Contrasting with this outrage, Bellamy has it that, five days into the shoot, all concerned considered the director something of a genius (Grant worked with McCarey on three more occasions, so any animosity was surely checked and balanced against the knowledge that their collaborations were fruitful; certainly, it’s said he went from nervous terror to outright enjoyment of the improv approach).
Depending on who you believe, audiences either responded to the film out of aspiration towards how the better half lived, or because, in McCarey’s view, they enjoyed a film about rich people having troubles (the latter seems like wishful thinking, really, as there’s no moral lesson here, and they end up every bit as rich and happy as they were before). It was based on Arthur Richman’s 1923 stage play, with previous film versions produced in 1925 and of 1929; at least some of these had an actual infidelity on the part of the wife, but as noted, McCarey threw out much of the structure.
Lucy: The car’s very old.
Jerry: So’s his story.
He keeps the basics fairly unfettered; Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry Warriner (Grant) each think the other has been having an affair; she sues for divorce and gains custody of Mr Smith (the dog Skippy, also of The Thin Man and Bringing Up Baby fame). This, we see, has been a dirty trick on her part (Jerry returns in like when he takes up his visitation rights and makes a hilariously unruly scene on the piano, accompanied by a spirited Mr Smith chorus). Lucy becomes engaged to Oklahoma oil lug Dan (Bellamy, Randolph Duke in Trading Places, sportingly showing off some appalling dance moves and a tuneless rendition of Where the Buffalo Roam). Jerry briefly consorts with singer-showgirl Dixie Bell Lee (Joyce Compton), whose rather outré act leads Lucy to comment “I guess it was easier for her to change her name than for her whole family to change theirs”.
After Lucy’s dalliance has dissolved and she faces the titular condition, that she still loves Jerry, it’s her turn to stick a spanner in the works of Jerry’s engagement to heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). Which she does by impersonating his blotto “sister”, at a party, insulting the guests and doing a take on Dixie’s dance; only later, when both are staying at the cabin of Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham), do the couple reconcile. Which left me wondering: since the divorce becomes legal at midnight, surely they will be out of wedlock come morning?
Armand: I have never yet been in a scandal.
Jerry: Never been caught, huh?
Grant is perfection throughout, proffering a succession of witty lines, expert timing or both combined. He sparks off Dunne (with whom he’d reunite on My Favourite Wife, also from McCarey) but is probably at his best in his interplay with Alexander D’Arcy’s music teacher Armand Duvalle; it’s suspicion of Duvalle that ignites the couple’s separation. D’Arcy, adopting a vague “Spenchard” European accent so as not to provoke specific offence (at the behest of the censors), is an amusing exaggeration, a peacock poo-pooing Jerry’s charges, to the latter’s increasing enmity. This culminates in an offscreen punch up following an amusingly extend wrong-hat routine (“They forgot to touch second” observes deadpan Aunt Patsy as Jerry races past, pursuing Armand). Elsewhere, Grant watches gleefully as Dan leads Lucy in a ham-fisted rumba, leans back casually in his chair as he views Lucy’s recital only for it to collapse under him, and attempts to open a door in vain against the brute force of an enterprising cat.
Armand: I am a great teacher, not a great lover.
Lucy: That’s right, Armand. No one could ever accuse you of being a great lover.
I’m less familiar with Dunne’s work, and I have to admit to being somewhat askance at Grant’s suggestion it “stretched credulity that a man would cheat on anyone as beautiful as Dunne” (I mean, really? Beautiful? Perhaps Cary was protesting too much) This is taken up in the movie, with Dixie referring to Lucy as a “gorgeous looking creature”. Dunne’s often very funny during the first two-thirds of The Awful Truth, McCarey keen to have playing against her “genteel” screen persona. Her apparently spontaneous laughter when Grant is poking her from behind the apartment door and the giggle she lets out when his chair collapses are very winning. Less so her drunk act.
Gary Giddins suggests “she’s really obnoxious” during this sequence, but that’s okay, as we’re in on the joke (if it had occurred earlier in the movie, we wouldn’t be). I’m not so sure she quite has the lightness and timing to carry it off and have us entirely on side, however (even Grant, as appealing as he is, flirts with being a bore when he attempts to ruin her plans early on). The scene should work from the perspective that we want her machinations to bring them back together, but instead, we concentrate on how “really obnoxious” she’s being. Pauline Kael suggested her “way with a quip is to smile brightly and wring it dry, but she’s at her best here”.
Jerry: I don’t think he’s getting enough exercise. He’s got circles under his eyes.
The other major star turn comes from Wire Fox Terrier Skippy. He was, it seems, difficult to work with (snappy and bitey). But… he’s soooooo adorable! It’s a nice touch that Mr Smith brought them together, and he’s the focus of some very funny moments, not least his game of impromptu hide and seek where he retrieves Armand’s bowler from the impossible position of a picture frame.
Jerry: Excuse me, you’re sitting on my prospectus.
One of the major boasts of the classic screwball comedy is how little they’ve aged. Perhaps because few comedies subsequently were equipped with both this level of energy and quality. Perhaps because they manage to insert innuendo that, by nature of the times, has to be of a higher standard than later, sloppier eras. There’s no fat on The Awful Truth either. Occasionally, the joins show – the attorney scene was added to inform the audience of the set up, and you can tell, funny as it is, as it’s overplayed; the figures on the cuckoo clock are a bit too cute – but as a whole, the concoction fizzes pleasingly throughout.
Molly Haskell suggested McCarey’s great skill was “timing, structure and rhythm”. Which doesn’t really explain the torpid Going My Way and The Bells St. Mary’s during the following decade. The Awful Truth was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture (no nod for Grant, of course). It won one, for Best Director (The Life of Emile Zola, Picture winner, took the most awards, a lousy three). McCarey famously said “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture”. He was referring to the same year’s Make Way for Tomorrow; ironically, from someone best known for his comedies, it was “The most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly” (as referenced by Errol Morris as his favourite film; it also remained McCarey’s favourite of his films).
Of the year’s nominees, The Awful Truth arguably holds the highest continuing profile, and it’s easy to see why. It isn’t in the rarefied classic of Bringing up Baby the following year (which managed not to be Best Picture nominated, or be a hit either), but its sense of effortless comic timing and payoffs is hard to beat.