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The Awful TruthThe Awful Truth

(United States, 1937, 91 minutes, b/w, 35 mm)

Directed by Leo McCarey

Starring: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

The Awful Truth is often called a comedy of remarriage, but for me, that’s a little dry for a film that is really about the reenchantment of marriage.  The latter term better gets at the exuberance of the love games played by the ostensibly feuding couple, the grown-up attractiveness of the characters, and the sheer sexy wit of these intricate stories of misapprehension, imagined unfaithfulness, wounded masculine and feminine pride, and sexy reconciliation.  Here, Jerry and Lucy Warriner engage in an elaborate competitive flirting match that gets out of hand, turning New York’s courtrooms, mansions, and night clubs into their own private battleground of the sexes.  In the end, it is a delightful draw; everyone, especially including us, takes home the loving cup.

Andrew Sarris has accurately called Cary Grant “indispensable” to screwball comedy, and it was The Awful Truth that made him so.  Before The Awful Truth, there was a long and now almost completely forgotten apprenticeship at Paramount for Grant, often as an uncomfortably straight dramatic actor whose vast comic talents were imprisoned within pretty boy parts, with only the occasional flashes of the Cary Grant-who-was-to-be on display in films like George Cukor’s tour-de-force of theatricality and gender playacting, 1936's Sylvia Scarlett.  But afterward, there came the Cary Grant of romantic comedy legend, the Cary Grant of Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, Cukor’s Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, Garson Kanin’s My Favorite Wife, and George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town, the Cary Grant who was so much an institution that twenty years later, Alfred Hitchcock could leverage the still-vital Grant persona against itself in the picaresque thriller North by Northwest, and Tony Curtis could fulfill a lifelong ambition and play Cary Grant in a send-up imitation of his deathless romantic style in Some Like it Hot.

It was The Awful Truth which brought Cary Grant’s quest to become Cary Grant to fruition.  The film was directed by Leo McCarey, a director who ranked with Ford and Capra as among the most popular and critically well-regarded filmmakers of the 1930's.  Like Capra, and like George Stevens, McCarey had cut his teeth on the short comedy films of the 1920's and early 1930's.  As gagman, director or screenwriter at Hal Roach studios, McCarey ground out dozens of Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy two-reelers, and that made McCarey a student at the best academy of comedy the movies have ever offered.  In sound features, McCarey would go on to direct several comic masters: Eddie Cantor, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers.  Remarkably, McCarey would also direct some of the most deeply tragic films of the sound era, such as Make Way for Tomorrow and An Affair to Remember. 

In The Awful Truth, McCarey brilliantly imported physical comedy into the realm of the screwball comedy in what critic James Harvey, the Boswell of screwball comedy,  has said is the pinnacle of the entire cycle.  In the frenetic laboratory of the comedy shorts, McCarey had learned to trust the improvisatory instincts of great instinctive comic actors.  In Grant, McCarey rediscovered the knockabout comic and acrobat who had come to the US from England as a member of a vaudeville troupe, much like his predecessors Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin.  That Cary Grant, the Cary Grant of inspired pratfalls and exquisite timing, had been confined in tuxedos and oily boyfriend roles in the Paramount years; in The Awful Truth, McCarey set him free to become what Pauline Kael would famously call “The most pursued man in America.”  McCarey knew instantly what he had in Grant, and began inventing large pieces of the film’s actions on the set.  (You’ll see that McCarey favors wide medium shots and even long shots in some of the funniest stretches of the film, always ready to capture an inspired invention of the moment by one of his leads.) And yet, Grant was so anxious about McCarey’s plan to fuse romance and broad comedy that he went to Columbia boss Harry Cohn and offered $5,000 in cash to buy his way out of the film. To the eternal gratitude of three generations of movie fans, Cohn threw him out of the office and told him to get the hell back on the set.

It was McCarey’s contribution to Grant’s screen character to make of him the most unlikely of everymen, the handsomest man in the world who nonetheless behaves as if he’s just the guy in the next apartment.  The result was a unique combination of cool glamour and warm approachability that everyone, including Grant himself, came to marvel at.  “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” he once said; “even I wish I could be Cary Grant.”  To achieve that combination of Olympus and Main Street, Grant borrowed many of McCarey’s ways.  McCarey was relaxed and generous, as well as a debonair clotheshorse, and after knowing him, Grant began to take excruciating care with his wardrobe, on screen and off, to the great pleasure of anyone who’s ever seen one of his films; even today, watching Cary Grant wear a suit is more fun than watching most actors act.

To play opposite Grant’s Jerry Warriner, McCarey and the Columbia brass wisely cast Irene Dunne, one of the screen’s most versatile light comediennes.  (That’s Dunne doing her own singing, not only as an agonizingly gauche roadhouse chanteuse, but as a trained operatic soprano.)  Screwball comedies like The Awful Truth were usually based on the premise that a nation of moviegoers in the grip of the Great Depression would find the antics of the preposterously well-to-do diverting.  But in her screwball roles like Theodora Goes Wild, Joy of Living, and My Favorite Wife, Dunne’s heroines aren’t at all dotty or breezy like the stock  madcap heiresses who often populate these films.  Instead, she is mature, intelligent, fun-loving, and passionate.  Here, she is a wife who is so smart that she bests her husband half the time in their games of romantic playacting, and respects him so much that she enjoys losing the other half  of the time.  Her evident satisfaction when he makes a chump of himself with a blowsy “other woman” is perfectly mirrored by his diabolical glee when she struggles to summon up something like love for cornpone oilman Dan Leeson (played perfectly by career nice guy/dullard Ralph Bellamy).  Grant and Dunne expend vast reserves of elegance, brains, and humor in the effort to insult one another, and finally, winded and out of ammunition, they only prove that no one is elegant enough, smart enough, and funny enough for them but one another. 

In thousands of Hollywood movies, marriage writes an end to the excitement of romance; it’s as if screenwriters could not imagine a married life in which lust was as comfortably reconciled with friendship.  But The Awful Truth is different, for it collects the dew of romance with the musk of sex in the same perfume.  Here, Dunne and Grant reintroduce eros to screen marriage, and matrimony suddenly becomes the sexiest thing imaginable.  Swanky Cafe Society nightclubs may be the battlegrounds of this film, but its playgrounds all have four-poster beds.

In the end, The Awful Truth is a very funny movie about some very serious things, love and trust and deceit and vanity.  McCarey told interviewer Peter Bogdanovich that the film was based on misunderstandings he’d had in his own marriage.  So The Awful Truth, as with all of McCarey’s best films, grows out of real things: real frustrations, real deceits, and finally, real love. That’s why Jean Renoir, the cinema’s great humanist, could pay to McCarey the finest compliment imaginable: “Leo McCarey understands people better than anyone in Hollywood.”

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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