This post is part of the CMBA Spring Blogathon, The Fabulous Films of the 30s. To check out the other fabulous entries click here!
To me the 1930s are the epitome of two genres of film. The first is the Pre-Code film, but this is inevitable as the Hayes Code went into strong effect in 1934. The second is the screwball comedy. With such films as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, TWENTIETH CENTURY, BRINGING UP BABY, and MY MAN GODFREY the 1930s brought us films with quick and clever dialogue, zany situations, and hysterical physical comedy which usually ended up being sealed with a kiss. These films are some of the first ones I fell in love with during my initiation into classic films. They are a good start for the new fan, easy viewing if you will, but ones that only become richer and more fabulous with repeated viewings. Even today I find these comedies far more amusing than most modern films. So when it came time to choose a film for this blogathon I decided to pick one of the quintessential screwball comedies, and the one that debuted the classic Cary Grant “comedic light touch” persona that would catapult him into world-wide stardom.
Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) is in need of a sun tan. He is currently under the lights at his sports club trying to get one because he has to prove to his wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne), that his recent trip out-of-town was to Florida as he said it was. Which of course it was not. Later that night armed with a gift basket of oranges from California and surrounded by several friends, Jerry returns home expecting to find Lucy there waiting for him. Which of course she is not. Everyone sits around somewhat awkwardly while Jerry reassures them that Lucy is most assuredly with her Aunt Patsy and will be home soon. Enter Aunt Patsy. Soon after Lucy returns, terribly happy to see Jerry, followed closely by her über suave singing instructor named Armand Duvalle. Friends and Aunt Patsy slowly filter out as Lucy explains that she and Armand spent the night together, quite innocently, when Armand’s car broke down on their way back to the city. Jerry is none too pleased with this situation and Armand senses that this is his cue to leave. Once alone Jerry and Lucy have one of those not so pleasant conversations where Jerry pretty much accuses Lucy of sleeping with her singing instructor and Lucy, denying the first accusation, points out that Jerry never mentioned the terrific rains that Florida was having in any of his letters home. After some back and forth, and increasingly sharp digs and accusations, the couple decides that without faith there can be no marriage so it is best to call it quits.
Really Jerry? And how were those California oranges?
Their day in divorce court comes and the judge grants the motion. The only matter left to resolve is who gets custody of Mr. Smith, the family dog. Both Jerry and Lucy claim ownership so the judge decides to play King Solomon and let Mr. Smith decide. Much to Jerry’s dismay he chooses Lucy, thanks in large part to the sudden appearance of his favorite toy in her hand, and the group leaves the court room while the judge promises to consider visitation rights for Jerry. Some time later Lucy is at home in the apartment she now shares with Aunt Patsy. Patsy is bored with Lucy staying home every night, her only male companion of late being Mr. Smith, and decides to get out for a while. As she heads to the elevator she runs into Daniel Lesson (Ralph Bellamy), a good old country boy from Oklahoma, who not only happens to be single and handsome but also an oil man. She brings him home to introduce to Lucy and soon the pair is going out almost every night. It is during one such date that they run into Jerry and his new squeeze Dixie Bell Lee. Dixie works at a nightclub singing songs with a backup wind machine, an act which she soon demonstrates, leading Jerry to comment “I just met her.”
Lucy and Daniel become engaged, and Jerry begins his personal mission of trying to breakup the engagement. Through a series of misadventures he finally does just that, through a complete misunderstanding of course, but by the time that Lucy is single again (and beginning to realize that maybe she still loves Jerry after all) Jerry is not. Through some misunderstandings of his own, Jerry has taken up with “madcap heiress” Barbara Vance and is himself now engaged. It is going to take some scheming, some drinks, a fake wind machine, and a sudden appearance by Jerry’s heretofore unknown sister Lola to work things out.
How’d you do? I’m the nut of the family tree!
Director Leo McCarey scared Cary Grant. McCarey shot THE AWFUL TRUTH with a different style than most directors of the time, preferring to improvise most of it even going into a scene with no idea of what would happen more than the overall plan (i.e. get from point A to point B). In a style that sounds more like the filming of Buster Keaton, McCarey started making THE AWFUL TRUTH and Cary Grant became convinced that the whole thing was going to be a terrible flop. He even went to see Harry Cohen, head of MGM, to beg him to be let out of the film. Failing that he asked to be allowed to at least switch to the Ralph Bellamy role. Harry Cohen basically told him to not let the door hit him on the way back to the studio lot, which thankfully Cary Grant did. After some time he began to see that the film was not only working but turning out to be a great hit. McCarey also gets the credit for helping Cary Grant craft the urbane, witty, subtly comedic persona that would become his signature for years to come. As Peter Bogdonavich said after THE AWFUL TRUTH when it came to light comedy, “there was Cary Grant and everyone else was an also-ran.” McCarey is said to have borne an eerie physical similarity to Grant as well, so perhaps we have more even more to thank him for. The sense of improvisation that runs through this film makes it a bit beyond other screwball comedies, in my opinion. The dialogue flows fast and feels off the cuff, which indeed much of it was, thus making the whole thing feel more realistic and less staged which can sometimes happen in a farce. Instead of feeling like an excuse to get from gag to gag each scene feels like the natural progression in Jerry and Lucy’s lives and we are just along to enjoy the ride.
THE AWFUL TRUTH helped catapult Cary Grant into worldwide stardom. Where before he was simply a good actor, now he become a persona and one that would continue to endure to this day. To say that Cary Grant is good in this movie is like saying that the sun is hot in the middle of August. It simply doesn’t begin to cover it. We all know that Cary Grant can act and we all know that he can deliver snappy dialogue better than most. But let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge the physical comedy that he brings to the film. Having started his career in vaudeville, Cary Grant is no stranger to the tumbling and acrobatics needed for the more slapstick humor. THE AWFUL TRUTH is different in that it actually requires the lead actors, not the second tier ones as most other films did, to take pratfalls and do physical comedy. And Cary Grant does it with the style, the grace, and the wit that we have come to expect from his more “verbal” performances for example, HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Go back and watch again and see how Cary Grant manages to take pratfalls and tumbles, all while never losing that sense of grace, style, and above all wit.
Of course we can’t talk about THE AWFUL TRUTH without talking about Irene Dunne. I love Irene Dunne. She is an actress who is able to bring a lovely light-headedness to her comedic roles without fully straying into ditz. She and Myrna Loy have a very similar approach to their female comedy roles, I think that Nora Charles and Lucy Warriner would get along swell actually, and I think this is part of why I love her. After having seen her in films like THEODORA GOES WILD and MY FAVORITE WIFE (another film with Grant and McCarey) I began to really appreciate Irene Dunne’s flair for comedy. But to me she takes it to a whole new level in THE AWFUL TRUTH. Lucy is a character that is both serious and funny, in love and hurt, clever and just a little dizzy. In another actress’s hands one trait could have become more pronounced or outshone the others. But Irene Dunne manages to balance all these traits perfectly, giving us a character that feels more real than made up. And she does more than enough to keep up with Cary Grant in the comedy department!
There is some talk that maybe this kind of movie, the marriage/remarriage comedy, is not timeless and might feel dated to today’s audience. Maybe that is true but maybe it isn’t. While it is true that the idea of divorce and remarriage is not looked upon with the same societal mores as it was in the 1930s, I think that deep down we all want to see people end up with the ones that they love. Why else would the whole boy meets girl/boy gets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back formula still be so popular today? So maybe instead of looking at THE AWFUL TRUTH as simply a movie about divorce and remarriage, perhaps we should look at it as a movie about people learning to trust each other and learning that telling the truth isn’t so bad after all. Because the awful truth is that we can be our own worst enemies, creating lies where there don’t need to be any and mistrust where there should be faith. Because really the truth isn’t so awful, especially when we have Irene Dunne and Cary Grant telling it to us.
I solemnly swear that I love this movie