Along with Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey arguably epitomizes the art of the screwball comedy. Of course other filmmakers have dabbled in screwball with winning results like William Wellman (Nothing Sacred), Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey), Mitchell Leisen (Easy Living) among others but these three men combined made some of the cleverest and funniest works of that period.
Made in 1937, “The Awful Truth” is one of the gems of this, for lack of a better term, sub-genre. Nominated for Best Picture, Leo McCarey managed to snag the Best Director award though the film lost to the more “important” and “esteemed” winner, “The Life of Emile Zola.” Based on a play by Arthur Richard with an Oscar nominated screenplay by Vina Delmar, though it is said Dorothy Parker had much to do with the script.
The story centers on Jerry Warinner (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warinner (Irene Dunne) a couple in the process of going through a divorce who seemed to be more concerned with undermining each other’s future marriage plans than moving on with their own lives, maybe because they are still in love with each other.
Leo McCarey was always one of the most physical of comedic film directors, though here he blends slapstick with the written word into a sharp and sophisticated work that could easily have been a French farce. During his long career McCarey worked with such comedy greats as W.C. Fields (Six of a Kind), Harold Lloyd (The Milky Way), Mae West (Bell of the Nineties), the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup), and his most fruitful collaboraters were with Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy.
The cast is a dream team of sophisticated wackiness, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy and Alexander D’Arcy. Grant is just in a class by himself. Whether it is comedy or drama, he is skillfully two steps ahead of everyone else. When it came to light romantic comedy there was Cary Grant and then there was everyone else. Grant easily elevates lesser material like “Room For One More” and “Every Girl Should Be Married,” two films I recently watched, with simple grace and style. This was the first pairing of Grant and Irene Dunne who would go on to make “My Favorite Wife” and “Penny Serenade” together. For Grant, this was also the film that made him a major star.
It was also a film Grant almost did not make. On loan to Columbia from Paramount, Grant found McCarey’s loose improvising style of filmmaking chaotic and felt the director was unprepared. He begged to be taken off the film and was refused. But as the film progressed, Grant learned there was a method to McCarey’s madness, a style of filmmaking that harbored back to his days working with Laurel and Hardy where on the set improvisation was standard operating procedure.
Irene Dunne manages to combine a sense of sophistication along with an inner wickedness as well as a loose fun demeanor. There is a wonderful scene, one of McCarey’s improvised scenes, where Dunne is playing a mediocre version of “Home on the Range” on a piano and Ralph Bellamy joins in singing way off-key. The whole scene was unplanned and is hysterically charming. McCarey apparently caught Dunne playing the piano during a break in the filming and told her to play it the same way in the scene with Bellamy joining in.
Ralph Bellamy plays a similar character here as he would some three years later in Howard Hawks, “His Girl Friday,” that of the naïve chump fiancé subjected to humiliation by Grant’s mischevious characters. Another similarity between the two classic screwballs is that both couples are divorced or in the process of getting divorced, and then there is a comparable scene in both films where the female lead is leaving the bright lights and night life of New York City for the hinder lands. In “The Awful Truth” Lucy is going off to live in Oklahoma City to which the roguish Jerry comments “And if things get boring in Oklahoma City, you can always go over to Tulsa for the weekend!” Similarly in “His Girl Friday,” after Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) advises Walter Burns (Grant) that she and her future husband Bruce (Bellamy) will be moving to his home town of Albany. Bruce mentions they will live with his mother for “just the first year.” Walter replies, “Oh, that will be nice. Yes, a home with your mother. In Albany too!”
Other terrifically executed scenes include playing ‘hide and seek’ with their dog, Mr. Smith (Asta from The Thin Man) who Jerry was granted visitation rights to by the judge. The dog ‘finds’, an incriminating derby hat belonging to Lucy’s music teacher (Alexander D’Arcy), and possibly former lover, who is hiding in the bedroom. Then there is the nightclub scene with Jerry’s date (Joyce Compton), a nightclub performer doing her act which consists of singing while her dress is air blown above her waist. I could go on but you get the idea.
Surprisingly there is some suggestive dialogue that somehow got passed the censors at a time when censorship was in full force, for example at one point Dunne’s character tells her music teacher /former lover ( D’Arcy) “I wonder if you could convince him (Jerry) that everything was just as I said it was that night at the inn. You know, the night we…” It is also hinted at earlier in the film that Jerry was cheating on his wife when he was supposed to be in Florida.