The Awful Truth (Preview)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Viña Delmar, based on the play by Arthur Richman; cinematography by Joseph Walker; art direction by Stephen Goossón; edited by Al Clark; starring Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D’Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont, Esther Dale, and Joyce Compton. Blu-ray and DVD, B&W, 91 min., 1937. A Criterion Collection release.

Casual viewers who come across The Awful Truth probably see the 1937 comedy as a star vehicle for Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, whereas auteur-oriented cinephiles may see it more as a top-flight Leo McCarey picture. This split is borne out by extras in the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray and DVD edition. On the acting side, a video essay by David Cairns discusses Grant’s performance and a 1978 audio interview presents Dunne’s views on the film. On the directing side, a video interview with Gary Giddins ponders McCarey’s unique production methods and Molly Haskell’s booklet essay mentions the filmmaker almost three times as often as either of the stars.

But hey, there’s no need for a contest here. The Awful Truth has earned its classic status by excelling on at least three levels. It’s the first definitive showcase for the meticulously honed screen personality that made Grant a superstar of sophisticated comedy. It earned Dunne the third of five nominations for the Academy Award she (incredibly) never won. And it established McCarey as a master of cinematic wit more polished and urbane than audiences might have expected from the man who’d ferried the Marx Brothers through the anarchic waters of Duck Soup just four years earlier. McCarey guided the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, and Mabel Normand through a decade of silent comedies, and when talkies arrived he adapted his loose-limbed improvisational techniques to the challenges of dramatic dialogue and sharp-edged badinage. Nowhere did he combine his verbal and visual gifts more dexterously than in The Awful Truth.

Irene Dunn and Cary Grant star in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937), one of the best of Hollywood's classic screwball comedies. 

Of the movies the late film philosopher Stanley Cavell called “comedies of remarriage,” this is one of the earliest and purest, even though the marriage (as in most of these pictures) doesn’t technically end before the “remarriage” finally occurs. It’s clear from the outset that Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Grant and Dunne) are an edgy couple, prone to suspicions of infidelity on both sides. Has he really just returned from Florida, or did he acquire that tan under a sunlamp? Did she really get home late because her music teacher’s car broke down, or were she and the maestro off canoodling?

Tensions between Isabelle (Sheree North) and Jerry (Tony Randall) Flagg are always simmering in their suburban home.

The two decide to part, divorce proceedings follow—the biggest battle concerns custody of Mr. Smith, the delightfully named household pooch—and the marriage will officially end in sixty days. Lucy now hooks up with Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), an Oklahoma oil millionaire living across the hall from the Warriner apartment. Jerry finds temporary solace with nightclub chanteuse Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), whose singing is almost as bad as her bogus Southern accent, and then moves on to heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont), scion of a snobbish and pretentious clan. Do lively Jerry and perky Lucy really want to wed these dreadfully dull partners when the sixty days are up? Unhappiness surely lies ahead if their rapidly expiring marriage doesn’t get rejuvenated fast.

Viña Delmar’s screenplay for The Awful Truth was ostensibly based on Arthur Richman’s eponymous play, which scored a hit on Broadway and inspired two films in the Twenties, although it never found a publisher and has rarely been revived. According to Giddins, nobody thought of the play as a hot property, but McCarey was new to Columbia Pictures, hired away from Paramount by Harry Cohn to needle Frank Capra for exhibiting too much independence. Foisting the creaky play on McCarey was Cohn’s way of reminding him who was boss and forestalling the kind of genre experimentation McCarey had indulged in Make Way for Tomorrow, the brilliant but unprofitable Paramount film he’d completed a few months earlier.

True romance can't be denied: Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) reconcile just in time at the conclusion of McCarey's The Awful Truth.

McCarey treated the play as a mostly disposable blueprint, drawing instead on the unusual talents of Delmar, a former novelist who had scripted Make Way for Tomorrow and appreciated McCarey’s offbeat production methods. Together they constructed the movie scene by scene as shooting took place, much as McCarey had done when putting together two-reelers in the silent era. A longtime musician and (unsuccessful) songwriter, he invariably had a piano on the set, and his preferred creative process was to gather the cast around the keyboard, hash out visual ideas and dialogue cues, then give everyone a break while he and the writer set down finished screenplay pages…

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Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4