Other Noteworthy Performances:
Jean Gabin (Pépé le Moko)
Victor Moore (Make Way for Tomorrow)
Roland Young (The Man Who Could Work Miracles)
Claude Rains (They Won’t Forget)
Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola)
Spencer Tracey (Captains Courageous)
Dan Zhao (Crossroads)
Will Hay (Oh, Mr. Porter!)
Sacha Guitry (Désiré)
Humphrey Bogart (Black Legion)
Charles Boyer (Conquest)
Spencer Tracey would walk away with the first of two consecutive best actor Oscars as a colorful Portuguese fisherman mentoring a spoiled brat in Captains Courageous. Though he was good in the movie, he wasn’t the best actor of the year. Several other leading men delivered better performances, including Jean Gabin’s work as the conflicted fugitive in Pépé le Moko. Victor Moore’s sympathetic portrait of an old man, now a burden on his family in Make Way for Tomorrow, also outshines Tracey’s work. And this doesn’t even take into consideration other fine, lesser-known performances from Claude Raines in They Won’t Forget, Roland Young in The Man Who Could Work Miracles, Will Hay in Oh, Mr. Porter!, and Dan Zhao, the charismatic and handsome Chinese actor, in Crossroads.
For me, Cary Grant comes out on top. He is an actor whose talent has often been underestimated. Some came to believe, erroneously, that he wasn’t really acting, that he just showed up on set, got in front of the camera, and played himself. This misconception has grown legs because his effortless acting was so consistently good. (Can you name a bad Cary Grant performance?) It’s ironic that his mastery of the craft of acting would lead many to assume he wasn’t actually acting at all, dismissing his talent, his abilities, his dedication and his hard work. In his long career he was only nominated for two Academy Awards, both of which recognized dramatic work in Penny Serenade (1941) and None but the Lonely Heart (1944), rather than his masterful and nuanced comedic work. Predictably the stuffy Academy, eager to prove that movies had artistic and social merit, privileged theatrical dramatic acting over low-brow comedic work, a trend which, sadly, continues to this day. Cary Grant really shines in comedy but the Academy’s anti-comedy bias excluded those roles from awards consideration. So some of the best performances of one of the best film actors of all time (if not the best) did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved.
A nomination, though, would not have been sufficient recognition for his fine work in The Awful Truth. Nothing less than a win is appropriate for one of his first box office hits as a leading man, along with Topper also of 1937. I’ve already written about The Awful Truth (which you can read about here), so I won’t go into detail about the plot. Briefly, Cary Grant’s character, Jerry Warriner, is a man ill-suited for marriage. Lucky for him he married Lucy (Irene Dunne), a woman who is almost a mirror-image of his connubial incompetence. Both privilege fun over duty (it’s never clear how they earn their money) – even if their exploits may appear indiscreet. When they catch each other in lies, all they can do — indeed all they know how to do – is to follow tradition and get divorced. They spend the rest of the picture alternately trying to hurt and trying to win back the other before their divorce becomes final.
Jerry is inconsistent, contradictory, and impulsive. Of course he still loves Lucy and doesn’t want a divorce. And he knows she doesn’t want a divorce either. He recognizes her absurd relationship with Dan Leeson as the jab at his vanity and jealousy that Lucy meant it to be rather than a profound expression of new love between them. His impulsive nature suggests he should take her in his arms, proclaim his feelings, and call off the divorce. Jerry’s struggles though, between his impulsiveness and his stubborn pride: he won’t admit he’s wrong until she does so first.
It’s great fun to watch Grant here because much of what he says and does is clearly ironic. He goes through all the moves of pushing Lucy away, finding a new fiancée for himself, and advocating divorce while at the same time sabotaging Lucy’s new relationship with Dan and keeping her in his life through shared custody of their dog, Mr. Smith. Surreptitiously, he does everything he can to keep Lucy single and in his life.
Cary Grant uses his natural charm to great effect here, convincing us that he loves Lucy utterly and completely, would never cheat on her, and longs to reverse the forward motion of the divorce. But this isn’t something he can come out and say. Almost all of his true emotions are expressed non-verbally, like his bemused face when his date performs her nightclub number or when Lucy crashes his fiancée’s party pretending to be his alcoholic, reprobate sister. In both of these moments Jerry should be mortified, but there is a glint in his eye as he sees his humiliation pushing him closer to Lucy. Grant communicated pages of dialogue with a simple smirk or a slightly exaggerated widening of his eyes.
He also shows off his talent for physical comedy, something he was never be too stuffy to indulge in and would become something of a hallmark of his work (probably another reason the Academy didn’t deem him serious enough for recognition). Whether it’s when a jujitsu-trained butler sends him face first into the carpet, or he gets tangled up with a chair and table during a recital, Grant reminds us we’re all a little awkward. After all, if things like that can happen to Cary Grant, they can happen to anyone. He realized early on in his career that it’s funnier if someone as graceful and debonair as Cary Grant can has a piano top fall on his hand rather than any schmuck off the street. Grant never took himself or his persona all that seriously and was more than willing to poke fun at himself.
In The Awful Truth, with his ironic lines readings, clumsy physical comedy, and charming demeanor, he proved that he was a fine actor and he would continue to consistently deliver inspired, funny, and truthful performances for the next 30 years. It’s truly a treat to choose this performance as the best of 1937.