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)
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.
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?
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…