Best Pictures of 1937 (#2) The Awful Truth

(United States)

Director, Leo McCarey; Screenplay, Viña Delmar; Producers, Leo McCarey and Everett Riskin (Paramount); Original Music, Ben Oakland; Cinematography, Joseph Walker; Editor, Al Clark; Art Direction, Lionel Banks and Stephen Goosson; Costume Design, Robert Kalloch

Cast: Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner), Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner), Ralph Bellamy (Dan Leeson), Alexander D’Arcy (Armand Duvalle), Cecil Cunningham (Aunt Patsy), Molly Lamont (Barbara Vance), Esther Dale (Mrs. Leeson), Joyce Compton (Dixie Belle Lee)

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne toast their upcoming divorce


I love The Awful Truth and, to be honest, it breaks my heart a little not to place it in the number one slot.  I love all the movies in the top three of 1937 and each had for a time ended up in the top spot, but eventually I grudgingly put Leo McCarey’s comic masterpiece in second place.  I had to come to terms with the fact that there is a better movie – more on that in the next post.

There are few movies I consider perfect, but The Awful Truth comes mighty close.  Screenwriters of romantic screwball comedies too regularly try my patience – they often unnaturally twist and contort their characters like pretzels, mindless of their motivations or personalities, to meet the demands of a convoluted plot of mistaken identity or some such nonsense.  (Mistaken identity plots have to be done very well to not be absolutely annoying – see my displeasure with Top Hat.)  Here, there is no attempt to force these characters into unbelievably zany situations.  The writing and acting is so good that we believe they are natural nuts who would, as a matter of course, get themselves into one mess after another.

When sophisticated, but fun-loving Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) catch each other in bald-faced lies, they wrongly suspect each other of infidelity.  Neither is sure of the charge against the other partner but they quickly agree that without trust, marriage does not work.  Hotheadedly they consent to divorce.  Both Jerry and Lucy probably regret their quick decision, but they are creatures of impulse and to admit they may have rushed such an important decision would invalidate all the other impulsive decisions they have made – or every decision they’ve ever made.  So because they are too proud to admit that legal action is hasty, they have to get revenge on the other – prove that they never really needed the other – by initiating new romances.  Of course neither picks anyone suitable.  Lucy saddles herself with Dan, an Oklahoma oil man looking for a demur housewife, but he’s played by Ralph Bellamy so we know that isn’t going anywhere.  And Jerry ends up with a snotty heiress with plenty of money and breeding but none of Lucy’s lighthearted good humor.

Jerry does his best to disrupt Dan and Lucy's evening


The only thing keeping them in contact in the weeks leading up to the finalization of their divorce is their court-ordered joint custody of their dog Mr. Smith.  At each visit they take the opportunity to flaunt their newfound freedom or romance, hoping to get a rise out of the other.  These encounters not only annoy both parties, but they also finally reveal the awful truth: they are still in love with each other.  But will they be able to get over their pride and admit they were wrong before it’s too late?

Determining custody of Mr. Smith

The outcome of the movie may be preordained, but it still charms and enthralls.  The comedy is sharp and doesn’t assume that the characters or the audience are idiots.  Some of the funniest scenes involve Lucy’s and Jerry’s schemes to disrupt the romance of the other.  Jerry hiding behind a door and poking Lucy in the ribs as Dan (Bellamy) reads her a corny love poem.  Every poke elicits inappropriate giggles to Dan’s mawkishly heartfelt poetry.  Lucy gets back at him though.  Lucy crashes the party at the family mansion of Jerry’s heiress, pretending to be his vulgar, alcoholic, showgirl sister Lola.  Every crude joke and annoying laugh is carefully designed to embarrass Jerry and break up his ridiculous engagement.

The bubbly chemistry between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne makes the movie.  Yes, the script is fantastic too (Where else could you get a line like: “Well, it’s nice to have a chance to meet you.  I’ve seen your picture in the paper and I’ve wondered what you look like.”  That’s classic.), but Grant and Dunne make all the absurdity plausible as only they and a handful of other actors could have.  From their first on-screen interaction we sense a complete history.  It isn’t an incredibly deep history, but these aren’t deep people.  Their relationship has – their entire lives have – been based on fun, laughs, and impulse, not introspective examinations and reflective decisions.  They probably jumped into marriage as quickly as they want to jump out of it.  It isn’t surprising then that they catch each other in lies; they are the kinds of people who actually believe that what the other doesn’t know won’t hurt him or her.  Despite their dishonesty (however innocent) we see real feeling they have for each other and we know nothing should keep them apart.  After all, there probably isn’t anyone else screwy enough to put up with them.

No, The Awful Truth doesn’t have the gravitas of Grand Illusion, but I think it is a slightly better movie.  Also comedy hasn’t received the respect it deserves over the years from critics and award committees and this was one of the main reasons I wanted to put this in the top spot.  It’s one of my personal favorite movies, but even I had to admit there is another movie that belongs in the top spot.  Like the entire genre of comedy, my choice for the best picture of 1937 also has been neglected over the years, though that may be changing.  Stay tuned…



Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Pictures

7 responses to “Best Pictures of 1937 (#2) The Awful Truth

  1. Yes, it’s a timeless screwball classic, and a nearly perfect film. I fully expected to see it here, and I dare say I have an idea as to what will pace in the top spot. (but my lips are sealed!) I don’t see it as a better film than GRANDE ILLUSION, but when we’re up this high it’s value judgement and taste. I have noticed from a few years back in this great venture, that you favor comedies. It’s a laudable stance, when one considers their neglect through the years. Another remarkable essay!

    • Honestly, I didn’t notice my bias toward comedy until this year, and I really wouldn’t have predicted it. As you say, they have been neglected so maybe this has been a subconscious correction of that. It’s strange too since I believe (and every actor I know has told me) that comedy is much harder to do well than drama. One thing I am appreciating about what I’ve done here over the past few months is a growing admiration for the work of Leo McCarey. He deserves to be considered alongside other great Hollywood directors of the studio era.

      As far as whether GRAND ILLUSION is a better movie than THE AWFUL TRUTH or the next one on the list (which I know you know since I tipped my hand over at Wonders in the Dark) I will talk about that a bit in the next essay. Of these three any could have been the top probably any other year. If I could proclaim a three-way tie I would, but that hardly seems to be in the spirit of this project.

  2. SCREWBALL COMEDY with depth, that would only kill all the SCREWBALL in the comedy. You gotta decide between making a sugar pie or perhaps using garlic and chili. THE AWFUL truth is one of my absolutely favorite films. I don’t miss anything in there. It’s brilliant.
    A 100 percent spotless film comedy is ROBERTA (1935) in my opinion. This film has more depth, but it can never be considered SCREWBALL. How about EASY LIVING – another top 1937 SCREWBALL COMEDY, as I feel.

    It’s such great fun to watch the scene in Irene’s car, as phony drunk, turning on the radio and throwing away the volume knob. And the music is exactly the style I love (a bit old-fashioned in 1937). And after all the car goes of the slope with a gorgeous red-hot trombone solo. It’s really infernally funny!!

    You’ve got the swellest stuff in your 1937 movie program … Just wait, in about 4 years this flick will be my job too. On WordPress of course. 🙂

    • Clarissa, the only reason I have such swell stuff for 1937 is because the year had some great movies. Obvioulsy I absolutely agree that THE AWFUL TRUTH is one of my all time favorites, though I don’t share your affection for ROBERTA. It was OK, but nothing that I found all that memorable. EASY LIVING on the other hand is a true gem — it made number 9 on this list!

      And the scene you highlight is truly a classic. Both Irene Dunne and Cary Grant have so many classic moments. I’ll be looking forward to see what you have to say about this movie when you get to 1937. Thanks for your comments, Clarissa! They are appreciated.

      • Well, it depends on one’s personal preferences. People who don’t give much for fashion won’t be so very much thrilled by the fashion art in Roberta. Same goes for dancing and singing. Roberta impresses me so very much because they connected all these thing to a perfect synthesis of arts. It’s not just patchwork, it’s a great composition as I feel.

        Since yesterday I pondered the idea of “depth” quite a lot. Then I found there are different kinds of depth: Intellectual depth has a totally different character from emotional depth. THE AWFUL TRUTH and EASY LIVING have lots of intellectual depth – quite sophisticated irony. ROBERTA is at times quite funny, but it’s deep in an emotional way. It’s not alone Irene’s singing : the way they present DEATH there impresses me insanely. The mood, the morning after Roberta’s death, is indescribable.

        Well, I appreciate both kinds of depth.

        I figured out when I’ll get to 1937: 36 weeks = 8.4 months … that made me kinda impatient for a moment. But I got to live in the present of my project to experience it all as deeply as possible. You know, I come into a hat shop and can spot out “my hat” at once. If I always watched 40s and 50s pictures too, I’d see the 30s somewhat blurry: Hats from the 20s, hats from the 40s, hats from the 50s … my brain would it all mix up. Same goes for music and dancing styles. You can’t ‘live’ in various styles if you really want to hit a certain style. I want to understand the 30s a 100%! I want to experience it all with the senses of the generation born around 1900 as profoundly as I can. I wanna try to feel and think the same way they did. Well, as much as possible.

        I discovered your blog darned late – when you had just published your article on STAGE DOOR. And I said at once to myself: “There goes another time traveler!” I’ll read you 1937 Japan stuff ‘in 4 years’ — Japan before the war, is interesting to me anyway. You’re looking more globally, that’s very interesting to me. I’m captured by my Broadway sing & dance obsession – wanna learn as much as I can and that’s exactly why I’m ‘traveling’. — The guy on HOLLYWOOD HEYDAY is traveling too. But the remarkable point about him is: His time is even running slower than real time! A day takes weeks!! He must have lots of patience to bear that … But well, he’s digging extremely deep as anybody can experience there.

        • Don’t be impatient! That was the mistake I made in the beginning of this project and now I want to go back and redo the early years as I was impatient to get on with it. Now I see I missed a lot. Your project will be interesting to follow though so I don’t want to see you getting antsy to jump ahead. (Though I know you won’t.)

          You make a good point about the difference between emotional and intellectual depth and I can see how ROBERTA would impress you emotionally. I have to admit I have never been a fan of most of the Astaire-Rogers pairings, though ROBERTA was one of the ones I liked better. Maybe because they had Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott to even things out.

          And you didn’t discover the blog to late. I’m thrilled you discovered it. I still have lots of years to cover and I will eventually go back and work on the silents. So there’s still plenty more for you to participate in!

  3. If you consider the spoken dialogs in most Astaire-Ginger films, it’s awfully flat and boring. Those films don’t have much to say and it’s actually always the same what happens: Boy meets girl – boy crushes on girl – girl likes him a bit too, but doesn’t show it – they get closer and begin to love each other – then she abandons him, because of a misunderstanding – and finally happy ending.
    But this flatness was a good basis to integrate the language of dancing. You couldn’t integrate so many danced dialogs into a film with very strong spoken dialogs.

    Personally I have a problem with one scene in 42nd Street: “I’m Young and Healthy”. I like the song, but the scene is awfully stupid. Above all I hate the way Dick Powell is kissing that blonde girl: It’s heartless, mean, disgusting! In the scenes with Ruby Keeler Powell is always touching as a lover, but in “Young and Healthy” Berkeley made him do something impossible in my eays. On the other hand there are so marvelous scenes in 42nd Street, that I must forgive Berkeley.

    For the same reason I can forgive all the stupidity in Astaire-Rogers films. Because of those great danced dialogs. Although I actually hat stupidity.

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