A few weeks ago I wrote about the classic American screwball comedy ("An Unsuitable Attachment: The Classic American Screwball Comedy," July 14, 2008). In that blog I described the typical dilemma of the genre: a character must choose between two possible romantic interests who represent on the one hand safety and conformity and on the other hand risk and idiosyncrasy. In 1937, only three years after the original screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, was released, a movie came along that for me represents the apogee of the genre, The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne and directed by Leo McCarey.
At the beginning of the movie the two main characters, Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne), the type of urban sophisticates who routinely populated the screwball comedies of the 1930's, are already married. Jerry, just returned from a trip to Florida, finds that in his absence Lucy has been enjoying herself with their friends and immediately notices that she seems to be receiving a great deal of attention—and returning it—from a suave Continental bachelor who has "gigolo" written all over him. His jealousy aroused, Jerry refuses to believe Lucy's protests that that her actions have been entirely innocuous. As the squabble between the two escalates, Lucy, dismayed and frustrated with her husband's lack of trust in her, files for divorce and the two separate.
In typical screwball fashion, each soon becomes attached to someone else. Lucy becomes engaged to a new neighbor, a rich oilman (and mother-dominated hick) from Oklahoma. This character, played by Ralph Bellamy, is in every way the opposite of Jerry—slow-witted, unsophisticated, and unimaginative. Jerry is at first desperate to win Lucy back before the divorce decree becomes final and does everything he can think of to sabotage her engagement, including becoming attached to an embarrassingly tawdry nightclub performer named Dixie Belle Lee in an effort to make Lucy jealous.
When all his efforts fail, he gives up and becomes engaged to a dull and conventional heiress. It is just at this point that Lucy finally realizes that she still loves Jerry and that her oilman is all wrong for her. She breaks off her engagement and lays plans to get Jerry back. Her scheme succeeds with hilarious results and the two are reunited just before their divorce decree becomes final.
What makes The Awful Truth the definitive screwball comedy is not just its archetypal plot, which the brief synopsis above hardly does justice to. What really makes it special is its perfect confluence of star power, inspired direction, and tremendously entertaining situations.
It is in this movie that the Cary Grant persona as moviegoers came to experience it over the next three decades emerged fully formed. Cary Grant had been working in movies for five years before making The Awful Truth, which was his thirtieth film credit. Yet seeing him in movies like Sylvia Scarlett (1936) or the two Mae West classics She Done Him Wrong or I'm No Angel (both 1933), one might find it hard to believe that this is the same actor. In The Awful Truth he is relaxed, urbane, slyly witty, subtly funny, slightly disreputable, everything that one associates with the screen personality "Cary Grant." The screen persona of the comic Cary Grant was born in this movie and continued with little alteration until he retired in the mid-1960's.
Like Grant, Irene Dunne was an experienced movie performer when she made The Awful Truth, but unlike Grant she was already a major star and two-time Academy Award nominee. She had appeared in just about every kind of Hollywood movie, from Westerns to musicals and especially ultrasentimental tearjerkers. She had a lovely soprano singing voice and an affinity for the songs of Jerome Kern, playing Magnolia in the 1936 version of Show Boat. Yet she had her first major comedy role, in Theodora Goes Wild, just the year before.
In The Awful Truth she shows a real affinity for both sophisticated and physical comedy, and it's hard to imagine an actress who would have been so perfect as Lucy. At key moments she gives what I think of as the Irene Dunne reaction, a slightly vacant expression of wry surprise and disbelief that in its way is as distinctive as Grant's familiar recoiling, wide-eyed double-take. Her ability to balance, and sometimes to project simultaneously, conflicting emotions made her one of the most versatile and talented actresses of the studio era. Her seriousness in this movie is tempered with lightheartedness, and her whimsicality with restraint. Like Grant, her frustration is comic, and her comic behavior is a response to emotional turmoil. The interaction of these two actors makes it clear to the viewer that the characters they play are ideally suited to each other and that their notions of incompatibility are complete nonsense.
Those familiar with the later work of director Leo McCarey, swamped in heavy-handed sentimentality and a curiously outdated sensibility, might find it difficult to believe that he was responsible for The Awful Truth. In fact, McCarey had previously worked with many notable Hollywood comics, including Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, Mae West, and Harold Lloyd. He was responsible for two of the funniest movies ever made, the Marx Brothers' zany Duck Soup (1933) and the delightful Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). The Awful Truth is masterfully directed, with a sure command of controlled comic invention and a light touch throughout. It is packed with clever sight gags and moments of restrained physical comedy that stop just short of farce. And as in the best movie comedies, these humorous bits always seem to grow from the plot and never to be arbitrarily imposed on it. For The Awful Truth McCarey won an Oscar as Best Director, an award that was well deserved.
Three sequences in the movie are especially memorable. Early on, Jerry and Lucy go to court to see who will get custody of their dog, Mr. Smith, played by the same fox terrier that played Asta in the Thin Man series. The judge decides that he will let the dog make the choice, and both Jerry and Lucy begin frantically calling him to come to them. But Lucy has a trick up her sleeve (or in this case up the muff she has carried into court): Mr. Smith's new toy, a ball shaped like a bulldog's head, which, without letting either Jerry or the judge see, she uses to get the dog to run to her. Mr. Smith is really Jerry's dog, so why is she so determined to get custody of him? Is she just being competitive, or is she unconsciously seeking a way to keep Jerry connected to her (he is awarded visiting rights)? Either way it's a very funny sequence, directed and performed with precision timing.
Later in the movie, Lucy hits upon a clever ruse to break up Jerry's engagement. She turns up at the swanky party Jerry's snobbish fiancée and future in-laws are giving on the very night that the divorce decree is to become final. Pretending to be Jerry's fictitious sister, Lola, she appears as a garishly dressed, bubble-headed lush, a professional singer clearly based on Dixie Belle. She pretends to get drunk and insists on performing the tasteless and risqué musical number she saw Dixie Belle do in the nightclub, correctly predicting that the humiliated Jerry will rush her out of the party and drive her home. To see the refined Lucy as performed by the refined Dunne cut loose like this, a departure into controlled slapstick so out of character for Lucy, is the high point of the movie. And to know that Lucy's gauche behavior is all a pretense just makes the whole episode all the more funny.
But Lucy's plot is not yet over. She contrives to have Jerry drive her to her aunt's country cabin instead of to her own apartment and further contrives for the car to break down so that they will be forced to spend their last night together as husband and wife in the remote cabin. What ensues is another bout of hilariously restrained slapstick that involves adjoining bedrooms, a connecting door that refuses to stay shut, and a mechanical clock with male and female figures (actually Grant and Dunne in Alpine costumes on a huge mock-up of the clock) emerging from and returning to separate doors as the clock ticks away to midnight, when the divorce decree becomes final.
Will Jerry give in to temptation and sleep in Lucy's room, which will invalidate the divorce decree? Will she let him? Of course, but not until they have negotiated a truce. The suspicion and jealousy that wrecked their relationship will be banished; their renewed marriage will be based on the principle of mutual trust. Theirs will be a modern marriage in the style of Nick and Nora Charles, one of partnership combined with independence. Just as the mechanical clock strikes midnight the two figures emerge from their separate compartments, but this time they both return to hers, an ingenious sight gag concocted by McCarey not only to skirt Production Code issues but to indicate visually the reconciliation of Jerry and Lucy.
The Awful Truth plays on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday, September 6 at 7 a.m. (PDT).