|The Awful Truth (1937)
Run time: 91 min
Genres: Comedy | Romance
Director: Leo McCarey
Writers: Viña Delmar, Arthur Richman
Stars: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy
Before their divorce becomes final, Jerry and Lucy Warriner both do their best to ruin each other’s plans for remarriage, Jerry to haughty socialite Molly Lamont, she to oil-rich bumpkin Daniel Leeson. Among their strategies: Jerry’s court-decreed visitation rights with Mr. Smith, their pet fox terrier, and Lucy doing her most flamboyant Dixie Belle Lee impersonation as Jerry’s brassy “sister” before his prospective bride’s scandalized family. Written by Paul Penna <email@example.com>
Release Date: 21 October 1937 (USA)
Nothing in this movie makes sense, and it really doesn’t matter. It succeeds with its self-assured anarchy and the charm of its stars.
Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy and especially Irene Dunne are in top form. Dunne has been unjustly overlooked for her comic talents. The contrast of her well-bred demeanor and inner wickedness is a delight — like when she does a "hoochy" dance for a parlor of society snobs. She always appears to be on the edge of bursting out in laughter at the antics of Grant and the buffoonery of Bellamy. A wonderful nonsensical scene is of the musically skilled Dunne at the piano trying to sing "Home on the Range" with the hopelessly off-key Bellamy.
Grant is in the period of his career where he’s not afraid of self-parody. He’s at his best when he takes nobody and nothing seriously, and he’s especially funny at tormenting the slow-witted Bellamy. And Bellamy is so good at playing dumb, you have to wonder if perhaps he’s not really in on the joke. (Grant and Bellamy basically repeat their roles, with the same success, in "His Girl Friday," another first-rate comedy).
"The Awful Truth" is the masterpiece of Leo McCarey. There’s really nothing else quite like it.
This movie is exquisitely directed and acted. The "fourth wall" is gone; the movie rides so high and smart that we as audience can be subtly acknowledged throughout and made complicit in the production, while we continue to believe in the characters and care about what happens to them.
Much of the important dialogue is "throw-away" dialogue, in a sense. It’s clear to the hearing, but lines are often spoken by the characters to themselves, for their own (and our) amusement, or delivered in very deftly choreographed "simultaneity," each speaker maintaining an independent point of view in rapid-fire repartee. Implications are understated. We are expected to expect the unexpected, to listen to every line.
The plot is composed like a piece of music. Each scene takes moment from the time-line established by the impending day and hour and minute at which a husband (Cary Grant) and wife (Irene Dunne) become legally divorced, and the movie ends at precisely the stroke of midnight which marks that moment. They clearly want each other back, but will they cleave together or cleave apart as the clock strikes midnight?
One extended "movement" of the movie lets Cary Grant charmingly undermine his wife’s new relationship. In corresponding scenes later, Irene Dunne brilliantly plays a dumb floozie, pretending to be the husband’s sister and demolishing in one evening his reputation and his prospects for marriage in respectable society. In these later scenes, in another of the movie’s nice compositional touches, she does a reprise of a hoochie musical number performed earlier by a girlfriend of her husband’s, and then falls into her husband’s arms, apparently drunk. He gestures for her to look back and say goodnight to the horrified guests (and to us) as they do a wonderful little wobbly dance out the door, having burned their bridges behind them.
I found the opening few scenes of the movie unlikable, but with the entrance of Irene Dunne, the movie gets us on board. There’s so much great understated visual and verbal double entendre (in the best sense) that I want to go back and see if there’s more that I missed. In one scene, Cary Grant has brought to Irene Dunne’s new fiancé the paperwork on a coal mine the divorcing couple still own. Interrupted by a visitor while advising the fiancé on where it would good to sink a shaft (har!), he explains that he and the fiancé (brilliantly played by Ralph Bellamy as a very successful bumpkin businessman) are transacting a business deal. The movie moves along briskly and doesn’t play up the point, but we catch, for a fraction of a second, Irene Dunne squirming as she finds herself looking like the business transaction in question. The movie moves through moments like this quickly, with high respect for our intelligence and our capacity to get in on the joke.
'The Awful Truth' just came out on DVD and what a treat! I'd never seen it before. It's sort of a first draft of 'My Favorite Wife' (remade as 'Move Over Darling') and has all the patented screwball-romantic comedy-French farce elements of the 'Palm Beach Story' but in a less sophisticated form. Even though 'The Awful Truth' may have established a formula for all subsequent screwball comedies, let's face it, it's still rude and crude around the edges. But it probably was the 'There's something about Mary' of its time and Leo McCarey apparently got an Oscar for Best Director. Its gags and dialogue are at times so unexpected as to be termed "experimental". The movie is really all about the sexual tension between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, married partners who wilfully dissolve their marriage over the husband's possible infidelity (barely alluded to) and his lack of confidence in his wife's virtue (a.k.a. jealousy). But this being 1937, sexuality has to be expressed in devious, contrived ways, including the occasional gratuitous slapstick. The Swiss clock ending is worth the price of admission in this respect. As is Cary Grant's date's obscene nightclub performance and his martial arts irruption into a society afternoon recital where his wife (Dunne) is singing an Italian aria that none of Grant's pratfalls can interrupt, except for one, memorable, epoch-making, anthology-ready second and a half towards the end that no other (singing) actress could have pulled off. What one has to remember, I guess, is that none of this nonsense had ever been attempted, seen or done on a screen before and it must have seemed terribly daring and innovative, thanks to the complicity and high spirits of a perfect cast, including Gee-shucks cowboy Ralph Bellamy, irrepressible faux-French charmer Alexander D'Arcy and worldly aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham). Irene Dunne, as usual, is a total original, and, by the way, Katharine Hepburn copied her comedy style and not the other way around (check your dates, guys).
I grudgingly watched this movie at my fiancé’s request. But I really enjoyed it wholeheartedly and I laughed out loud at least a dozen time. In addition to being very clever and funny, the story was interesting and heartwarming. Cary Grant player Jerry Warriner, am man to whom we are introduced while he is in a tanning bed to help provide the alibi that he was on vacation in Florida. We never find out what he was ‘really’ doing but it was probably naughty. He returns home to an empty house early in the morning. He doesn’t know where his wife is and then she returns in a full evening gown with a handsome "continental" man. It sounds dramatic, but its actually very very funny. I enjoyed seeing the double entendres and the innuendos that they were forced (by convention) to use in 1937. I am going to buy this movie and watch it repeatedly, just as I watch "The Apartment" and "Some Like it Hot"