The Awful Truth (1937)
This week’s movie is The Awful Truth (1937), a classic of the screwball comedy genre. We’ve got Cary Grant in his first appearance as the “Cary Grant” comedy character, and lovely Irene Dunne, a gifted mezzo-soprano and actress.
Grant is Jerry Warriner and Dunne is Lucy, his wife. They’re gorgeous, urbane, witty, rich, and vaguely unfaithful. I say “vaguely” because we don’t actually see any infidelity, but we’re introduced to Jerry and Lucy in very suspicious circumstances.
Exhibit A: Jerry strolls into his club and asks for the sun lamp to be turned on full blast to simulate a deep Florida tan. He told everyone, including his wife, that he was vacationing in Florida for the past two weeks. But, as his friend points out, he’s rather pasty, and it’s quite suspicious. He needs to fix that before heading home.
This sun-lamp solution is the same gag that Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard worked out in Hands Across the Table (1935). Fred was supposed to be relaxing in the Bermuda sun, but actually he was crashing in Carole’s apartment (and falling in love with her, natch). Fred’s fiancee can’t know about that, and Fred’s sun-lamp-acquired-sun-tan is his first line of deceptive defense.
Jerry arrives back at his impressive mansion with a deep tan and a big basket of Florida oranges for his wife. He’s rather discomfited to find that his dear Lucy isn’t at home. But his beloved terrier, Mr. Smith, is there! (Mr. Smith is played by Asta, who is the dog in The Thin Man, After The Thin Man, Bringing Up Baby, and Mr. Topper Takes a Trip (1939) He’s amazing, clearly).
Exhibit B: Lucy wanders in a few minutes after Jerry, dressed in a spectacular white fur coat and sequined evening gown (costumes designed by Robert Kalloch. This is worrisome, as it’s the afternoon.
Things go from worrisome to downright damning when a certain dark, dashing stranger follows Lucy into the room:
It’s Lucy’s voice teacher, Armand (Alexander D’Arcy), and they have a whole story about how Armand’s car broke down so they had to spend the night at a terrible little inn…
Jerry’s not buying it.
Lucy feels guilty until she examines one of the oranges that Jerry brought from “Florida:”
And suddenly they’re both caught. You can watch this wonderful scene here. It ends with the dissolution of their marriage, and next thing we know we’re in an incredibly symmetrical courtroom dividing up assets.
And by assets I mean Mr. Smith. Both Lucy and Jerry want primary custody of the dog, so the judge decides that Mr. Smith should choose which parent he’d like to live with. Lucy cheats, showing Mr. Smith his favorite toy hidden inside her fur muff. So poor Jerry has to petition the judge for weekly visits. Comedy! You can watch it here.
Also, can we take a moment to marvel at Lucy’s hat? It doubles as a dagger and a space ship.
The movie has barely begun and already our perfect couple is divorced! This isn’t the way romantic comedies are supposed to go! But this is the way a very particular type of romantic (screwball) comedy goes: the “comedy of remarriage.”
Philosopher and critic Stanley Cavell coined the term and wrote an excellent book called Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage all about this subgenre, which includes another favorite of mine, The Palm Beach Story.
The divorce/remarriage of the protagonists helped filmmakers skirt the Production Code’s strict rules about sex and adultery. If the couple had already been married, then they could get away with more overt and familiar flirting, more sophisticated dialogue, and chancier situations, like being stuck in the same room overnight, than a new, virginal couple could get away with. It also allows for greater, faster familiarity and a thrilling ease between the divorced couple that a man and a woman who had only just had their meet-cute could achieve.
It’s all very clever and makes for sophisticated and timeless movies. I mentioned in my review of The More the Merrier that it doesn’t feel as timeless as some other movies because the major plot point is that Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur can get in huge, life-altering trouble simply because they are sharing a two bedroom apartment (even though they are being good and chaste.)
A comedy of remarriage seems much more modern because it doesn’t concern itself quite as much with such “old-fashioned” mores.
Tangent ended. So, Jerry and Lucy are divorced, though it’s not official for another 90 days. Lucy lounges and mopes about her new apartment in an evening gown that sparkles like a Disney princess dress.
It seems that she misses Jerry despite herself. Her aunt begs her to get out there and meet some nice men, and when Lucy refuses, her aunt goes out there herself, bags a nice-looking gent in the elevator, and brings him to Lucy.
It’s dear old Ralph Bellamy, who always loses the girl. In this film he’s Dan, an Oklahoma oil man, though the part was originally conceived as an Englishman to fit actor Roland Young. Dan is taken with glamorous Lucy, and Lucy’s looking for a rebound. Perfect!
Jerry’s sudden appearance for his visit with Mr. Smith, and his obnoxiously exuberant behavior might have something to do with Lucy’s equally sudden affection for Dan…
There’s a great exchange when Jerry first meets kindly Dan. Jerry takes Dan’s greeting of “I’m glad to know you,” and runs with it, with no little help from his snappy (ex)-wife. She gets the last word…
You can watch it here. Although comedies of remarriage usually feature a competing new romance, like Lucy and Dan’s, the original couple always remains in-sync, even if it’s in snarky retorts and sneaky pranks. It’s clear that the divorced couple is meant to be together, and the fun comes in watching how they reconcile.
As Dan and Lucy are kindling a romance, Jerry makes time with Dixie Bell Lee, a nightclub performer. When Dan and Lucy (and her hat and oddly placed brooches) happen to stroll into the same nightclub, Jerry wastes no time in joining their table with his Southern belle.
Dixie Bell Lee tells the group that she changed her name when she went into show business to avoid embarrassing her family…remember that. Then she sings her song, which is all about how her “dreams are gone with the wind.” It starts out nicely enough:
But each time she sings the refrain, a fan activates beneath her, sending her skirts skyward and exposing her undies.
I think everyone should watch this movie just to see Bellamy, Grant, and Dunne react to this performance. Lucy quips: “I guess it was easier for her to change her name than for her whole family to change theirs.” You can watch the scene here. And you really should.
Then Dan takes Lucy to the dance floor where he leads her on an energetic and very Oklahoman quickstep. Jerry is in heaven watching his chic wife go country against her will.
If we learned anything from Fred and Ginger’s movies, it’s that the couple who dances well together stays together. And Dan and Lucy are no Fred and Ginger, that’s for sure.
Jerry gives an impassioned speech about how Lucy was the most wonderful wife in the world who never gave him even a hint of trouble or infidelity…all the while crossing his fingers behind his back where only Lucy can see. You can watch it here.
Keeping this in mind, you can see how this movie flows from one funny situation or set piece to the next: the trial with the dog, the dog visitation, Dixie Bell Lee’s number, the absurd dance, and then this gem of a situation when Lucy is stuck hiding Jerry behind the door while Dan begs her for a kiss.
McCarey’s style of filmmaking lent itself to improvisation, which he actively encouraged. Some actors loved this, and some were stressed out by it, like Cary Grant. McCarey nicknamed Grant the “Happy Worrier” because the lack of a fully developed script and McCarey’s preference for improv caused Grant a great deal of anxiety. Grant was so nervous about the film and doubted its success so much that he tried to pay the studio to release him from the movie. But they refused.
Ironically, McCarey and this film made Cary Grant into the “Cary Grant” character we know and love, and which he would play in several more films. It also made his fan mail increase from 200 to 1,400 fan letters a week! So the Happy Worrier needn’t have been so worried after all, though McCarey later said that he thought Grant’s tension and unease was a key part of the character’s success.
As I mentioned in my To Catch a Thief and Holiday reviews, Grant was an acrobat by training, and he often showcases his talents in his screwball comedies. This is no exception. McCarey was great with physical comedy, and he took advantage of Grant’s skills several times in this film. One of my favorite moments is when the butler tries to prevent Jerry from entering Lucy’s recital (Jerry thinks she is closeted with Armand for amorous purposes), and knocks him flat with jujitsu. Jerry does a tremendous pratfall somehow landing gently on his chin.
When he finally gets into the recital room he falls out of his chair, causing Lucy to chuckle in the middle of her aria.
Later Grant arrives at Lucy’s apartment to apologize for disrupting her recital. Lucy has softened considerably towards her almost ex-husband, and they seem to be about to reconcile. But things get complicated.
Armand was already in the apartment (Lucy asked him to come by in hopes of persuading him to tell Jerry that nothing actually happened between them that night in the inn.) So Armand is hiding in a back room, but his hat (which is identical to Jerry’s) remains out front. Lucy tries to hide it, but Mr. Smith thinks she is playing his favorite game of hide and seek, so he keeps finding it no matter where she stashes it.
In a spectacular moment of canine physical comedy, Mr. Smith somehow manages to climb atop a mirror in his quest for the hidden hat. Everything crashes to the floor, of course.. (Mr. Smith is unhurt.)
Jerry has no idea about the double hat drama, but unfortunately he and Armand have very differently sized heads.
Then Dan arrives, Jerry is stashed in the same room with Armand, and eventually Lucy’s attempt to juggle all three ends in disaster, as we knew it would.
Well, the 90 day divorce deadline is nearly upon them. Jerry has gotten himself engaged to a high-society heiress, Barbara, and somehow Dan and Lucy are back together. Lucy is upset to read about Jerry’s engagement in the paper. I laugh every time at his fiancee’s glum expression in the newspaper photograph!
Lucy knows by now that Jerry is the only man for her….she arrives to “congratulate” Jerry on their divorce and impending marriages. Their toasts are amazing:
Then Barbara calls and Lucy accidentally answers Jerry’s phone…he panics and claims that the woman is his sister, which gives Lucy a really superb idea. She takes a cue from Dixie Bell Lee and shows up at Barbara’s parents’ palatial and snobbish home as Jerry’s “sister.”
She offers to perform her nightclub act–guess which song she performs to Barbara’s complete disgust and Jerry’s amused resignation? Yes, her dreams are “gone with the wind.”
She explains to her shocked audience about the skirt-wind-effect, and she does some choice dance moves, too. It’s another must watch, especially when she tries and fails to do a “burlesque bump” (hip thrust,) and adds adorably, “Never could do that!” You can watch it here.
Fun Fact: Dunne said that she was handed the script for this scene on the morning when she was supposed to film it. Dunne told McCarey that she couldn’t do a burlesque bump, but rather than take out the move, he suggested she try it and follow it with the “never could do that” line. The whole thing works brilliantly.
Lucy successfully ends Jerry’s engagement to high-class Barbara then and there. Jerry leaves with Lucy and tries to take her home (he thinks she’s drunk, when in fact the “sherry” she was gulping was ginger ale.) There are some choice McCarey situations, which culminate in Lucy and Jerry riding on the handlebars of two police motorcycles.
It is scenes like this that make me grin and wonder why in the world I wasn’t born back then. The whole thing is so absurd and wonderful, and just so 1930s screwball-ific. Can’t.Even.Handle.It.
Lucy has everything planned out to get her husband back before the divorce is official, though even she could not have foreseen this magical moment:
Here the spoilers end, though of course you know what happens…Here’s a hint: this is just the type of scene that would have been censored if Lucy and Jerry weren’t a divorced couple…hurray for comedies of remarriage!
This movie was a box office and critical success. Leo McCarey won Best Director for this film, and it was nominated for Best Picture, Irene Dunne for Best Actress, Ralph Bellamy for Best Supporting Actor, and Vina Delmar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was “adapted screenplay” because this film was based on Arthur Richman’s 1922 play. This 1937 film version was actually the third of four to be produced: a 1925 silent film, a 1929 talkie, and a 1953 musical starring Ray Milland.
The Awful Truth is clever, funny, and a wonderful example of the screwball comedy genre; plenty of physical humor and pratfalls right along side gloriously witty dialogue and sophisticated situations. The glamorous 1930s sets and costumes don’t hurt, either…Enjoy!