The Awful Truth (1937) Leo McCarey

 

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.

****1/2

20 comments on “The Awful Truth (1937) Leo McCarey

  1. Vincent says:

    Certainly one of the very best screwball comedies ever made, one that proved very influential to the genre. (There must have been at least a half-dozen radio adaptations of the movie, which itself was not original; “The Awful Truth” was a play from the mid-twenties and a film was made of it in 1929.)

    Hard to believe Cary Grant almost left this project. He would have become a big star no matter what — he was too charismatic not to have been one — but this film, and to a lesser extent “Topper” made the same year, established the Grant comedic persona.

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    • John Greco says:

      Vincent,

      At first Grant had a hard time adjusting to McCarey improvising style. Ever the professtional he thought McCarey was unprepared but he soon adapted, luckily for us and him.

      I wasn’t aware of a 1929 film version or the radio adaptions. The story certainly seems to have gotten around.

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  2. The Lady Eve says:

    This is my very favorite screwball comedy. I’ve seen it I don’t know how many times and still laugh at certain bits: I love the scene in which Cary Grant is visiting Mr. Smith at Irene Dunne’s place and begins playing the piano for the dog – at a certain point he calls out, “take it!” and Mr. Smith starts barking along…& the scene where Irene Dunne pretends to be Grant’s sister and sings the song Joyce Compton sang in the nightclub, “My Love is Gone with the Wind” (or some-such)…and the final bedroom scenes. Ralph Bellamy is really an excellent foil for Grant and I can see why he was chosen for “His Girl Friday” to basically reprise his role.

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    • John Greco says:

      Eve,

      Actually you mentioned once before that this was your favorite and it was that mention that finally moved me on to take a look at this film that has
      been on my “to see” list for years and never got around to it, so I thank you for that. The three leads are just fantastic, and yes Bellamy is a great foil for Grant’s continuning put downs.

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  3. This is indeed a movie worth singling out. You have hit on several sublimely funny moments in the picture and, what’s better, you could have gone on and on. There isn’t a weak moment in the entire film; each scene is a gem. Both Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are superb. Dunne has an especially funny moment when she’s singing at a recital and Jerry makes a fool of himself. She continues singing, trying not to laugh, but she can’t contain one giggle between two notes. That moment still makes me laugh every time I see it.

    What makes the movie shine, in the end, is the sharp writing. The assumption is that the audience is just as smart and sophisticated as Jerry and Lucy, maybe more so. I wish modern comedy writers would start from a similar place rather than assuming everyone is an idiot who only laugh at fart jokes. There’s nothing wrong with a good fart joke, but if that’s all the movie has, it probably isn’t any good. Movies like “The Awful Truth” and the list you mention in your first paragraph are all movies I wish more screenwriters today would try to emulate. Even a bad version of “My Man Godfrey” has to be better than “Little Fockers.”

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    • John Greco says:

      Jason,

      You right, I could have gone on and on with listing the funny moments in this film. There is not a weak spot in the entire film.

      I also agree with you on today’s comedies. There is no sophistication at all. I don’t think the writers, or the producers, would know a intelligent witty comedy if it hit them in the head. Like yourself, I don’t mind bathroom humor but as a steady diet it is a poor subsitute. And as for LITTLE FOCKERS, oh the horror, the horror.

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  4. Dave Crosby says:

    John, thanks for a wonderfully informative review of a film I’ve never managed to see. I was laughing out loud at various parts of your review, so the film must be every bit as good as you say. And what wonderful pictures you manage to provide. Cary Grant may be the best film actor I’ve ever seen. Speaking of the censors sometimes overlooking lines, I’ve always thought the train compartment scene in “North By Northwest” in whch Cary kisses Eva Marie Saint quite provocatively contains a very subtle line most people miss. In their tight embrace they swivel around against the wall and Grant remarks that the train is unsteady. Then as the tight embracing continues Eva Marie Saint objects to Grant asking something or other by saying, “I hardly know you, after all.” Then Grant says, in his typically understated manner, “What more could you know?”

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave,

      This is such a great film, and knowing you like Grant, I am sure you will like this film. I agree with your thoughts on NBNW. Hitchcock always seemed to manage to sneak stuff by the censors. What a little devil he was!

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  5. Sam Juliano says:

    “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.”

    Aye John!!! Marvelous review that leaves no stone unturned! Dunne is magnificent. How did I know our good friend Jason Marshall would be heading on in here? Ha! Just kidding of course, and I greatly admire his amazing passion for the film, and his superb and irrefutable positive appraisal. It is surely one of the greatest of all screwball comedies, one’s of Grant’s finest hours (didn’t I just say that yesterday about NOTORIOUS?) and another triumph for Leo McCarey, who also helmed the masterful MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (also given the royal Greco treatment just weeks ago) David is not the only person who has not yet seen the film. Seems like quite a few have conceded never getting around to it. It’s an American masterpiece.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      Yes, it was a pleasure to here from Jason, one of WitD’s many avid commenter’s and bloggers. Grant, Dunne and company are so good. They don’t make them like they use too (I know that sounds old and it is corny but let’s face it. When was there a new comedy this funny and filled with classic bits as this one.) Thanks again, Sam.

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  6. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a most enjoyable post. I love screwball comedy and once wrote a post on this movie myself in which I called it “the definitive screwball comedy.” Grant teamed so beautifully with several actresses (Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Deborah Kerr, Ingrid Bergman, actually just about any good actress who had a screen personality strong enough to complement his), but I think Irene Dunne-Cary Grant is my favorite pairing of them all. An informative post too that related much background on the movie that was new even to a longtime admirer of it like myself. Not only is the whole setup of the movie great, but so are the many wonderful scenes, one after another, that you describe. “Sophisticated wackiness” just about sums up the tone of the movie, and I like the way you pointed out McCarey’s perfect balance of verbal and physical comedy. Cary Grant gets so much attention for his work, but Irene Dunne, one of my very favorite actresses of the studio era and one of the most versatile, doesn’t get nearly enough. I don’t think she was ever better than here, and when you wrote about her “sense of sophistication” and her “inner wickedness,” you succinctly summed up her performance here, for me best shown in her scenes at the engagement party where she pretends to be Grant’s alcoholic, slutty sister (completely out of character with her image) while performing that tacky song. Reading your post brought it all back to me.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D. Dunne is superb here and matches Grant in every way. Admittedly I am not too familar with her work but I do look forward to seeing more of it. This is a fantastic film, one that is very much the kind you could watch repeatedly. This was my first viewing but I can honestly say it won’t be my last. I am going to revist your review also. Thanks as always, R.D.

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  7. Rick29 says:

    Very enjoyable review, John. I think comedy is the most difficult of all genres, because “funny” is a matter of taste. THE AWFUL TRUTH hits all the right notes for all the reasons you noted. The remake LET’S DO IT AGAIN, with Jane Wyman and Ray Milland, shows that two fine stars can’t recreate the magic of the original.

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    • John Greco says:

      Rick,

      I have not seen the remake you mention but it is funny that Ray Milland’s name comes up. Recently, I wrote about DIAL M FOR MURDER and I stated that in that film “Ray Milland is a suave, if less charismatic, Cary Grant gone bad.” Don’t get me wrong, I like Milland but he is no Cary Grant, then again who is? Thanks!

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    • Vincent says:

      “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (1941) attempts the same kind of feel as “The Awful Truth,” though it takes marital difficulties in a slightly different direction. While it’s not quite as good as “The Awful Truth,” it still has its moments, along with a splendidly sexy performance by Carole Lombard (who did a half-hour radio adaptation of “The Awful Truth” with Robert Young in 1940).

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      • John Greco says:

        Vincent,

        Vincent,

        I have not seen Mr. and Mrs. Smith since the 1970’s, so I really need o catch another look at this. THe good thing is I saw in a movie theater. Always a treat to watch Hitchcock on the big screen.

        As you know I am a big fan of Lombard. She is always so watchable. Thanks!

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  8. Great review! A favorite film of mine and still so funny today. One of my favorite scenes is when Grant is trying to get into the apartment where he thinks Dunne is having a private affair. Grant and the houseboy go after each other before Grant finally gets by him. The whole scene shows off Grant’s physical abilities, which he learned as an acrobat in his younger years. His timing and facial expressions are perfect as well. It’s a shame he was snubbed for an Oscar nomination and was never nominated for a comedic role.

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    • John Greco says:

      I agree. Grant was great with physical comedy, as well as his perfect timing with comic dialogue. Part of the reason he was taken for granted (no pun intended) I believe was he just made it look so easy. Appreciate you stopping by and yor thoughts.

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