The Awful Truth (1937, Leo McCarey)
Up to Annie Hall or thereabouts, you could telegraph the entire scope of the Hollywood romantic comedy based on two touchstones of the 1930s: It Happened One Night and The Awful Truth. Look hard enough and you can still see traces of both films today, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything approximating either the spirit and yearning of Frank Capra’s Happened or, certainly, the elegance and eroticism of this splendidly crafted comedy, one of the brightest and most prescient of its era. Try your best to disregard such hyperbole if you have yet to see the film, for it can fool and undercut your expectations harshly. It’s hard to describe its gradual, cumulative impact; I personally did not realize until hours if not days after seeing the film how affected and thrilled I was by it.
That’s because, despite its cannily buzzy running time (91 glorious minutes), The Awful Truth takes its time. Devised by Leo McCarey during a stint at Columbia in between his fiery, relentless work with the Marx Brothers and his detestable, Oscar-winning, shell-of-his-former-self squat Going My Way, the film is a classicist Hollywood remarriage farce, part of a genre that nearly dominated adult-targeted comedies during this period. The general conceit of these films is that a couple who are clearly made for each other, in the stars and all that, somehow stumbles into some silly conflict or another and must brush up against eccentric judges and friendly hangers-on and fights about (in this case) who gets to keep the precious dog, but some business of other lovers and harsh divisions has its almost Shakespearean, supernatural way with our heroes and in the end they must become one again. The structure and idea long predate The Awful Truth, but numerous comedies of the ’40s owe immeasurably much to its impact.
Seen today, especially in the context of most of us being savvy not just to modern romantic comedies but to a wealth of other treasures produced in its time, The Awful Truth seems merely cute and intermittently funny, even disappointing at points. It’s engaging in the way that nearly all studio pictures of the ’30s are, engaging in the way that just about anything to which Cary Grant lent his visage naturally was, but we end up seeing its first two acts in a different context on repeat visits because they are completely altered by what comes after, and the film’s tricky maneuvering operates on a thin line. In the last thirty minutes, it launches into total hysteria and quickly shoots to the top of the romcom totem pole. Its teetering, ecstatic feeling by the last moments is a rare feat indeed.
Mind you, nothing in particular happens that you’re not expecting when the curtain goes up. Cary Grant’s vaguely conniving husband character suspects his wife of having been cavorting with a sexy Alexander D’Arcy, and his suspicions are never entirely disproven or even effectively denied by his lovely wife; she sees no reason to submit entirely to his control. Gradually, after a comically bitter separation, the pair grudgingly attain some sort of post-marital harmony sufficient to share the dog but can’t seem to stop getting hung up on one another. Grant mingles with self-styled floozies that make Irene Dunne’s eyes roll into the back of her head, and Dunne has hooked up and become engaged to a down-home Oklahoman played outrageously by Ralph Bellamy. Dunne’s juggling of men leads to a three-way bedroom brawl that is as close as this film really comes to a classic definition of screwball — it is indeed madcap, with much amusing and baffling nonsense about an errant hat.
A lesser film might well end there, or at least utilize that convoluted confrontation as the climax. But here we attain some sort of heaven as a lengthy tangent involving Grant’s courting of an heiress derails the story we think is being told here. Dunne is determined to break up this nonsensical engagement much as her Oklahoman tryst was lost in a flood of flailing arms at her place, so she poses as Grant’s sister and seeps herself in an astonishing drunken charade; she has no problem making an ass of herself, and delights in it, as do we in her sly power play. And then: an abortive car chase, a cabin in the woods, and literal bedroom-hopping before we finally cut out — and not before we receive one of the most astoundingly sexual and direct finales in Hays-era Hollywood. We essentially do everything but actually see the coitus; there is absolutely no question what’s about to happen when Dunne smiles sensually and tugs herself under a sheet. (A joke involving a cuckoo clock that probably made Hitchcock grin and would make Gepetto blush gets the point across explicitly to those who’ve miss it.)
Grant is as wonderful as ever, with his shy response to his wife’s meeting with his cute sexpot girltoy a career highlight, even as he continues to warm right up to accepting the persona and tics that are expected of him. As ever, all of his choices in reading lines and operating those magnificent eyes are note-perfect. But this is the rare film in which Grant’s oozing sexuality and undaunted, fussy sheepishness are both upstaged by a performer just as capable of both making the entire audience yearn for her and of a fearlessness in the face of total humiliation. Aside from the execrable Cimarron, this is my first experience with Irene Dunne, and what a performance — exuberant, wise, mindbendingly controlled, erotic and hilarious. She defines an idea of marriage and womanhood strongly at odds with this period of Hollywood filmmaking; the only comparisons I can think of are Edna Best in The Man Who Knew Too Much, whose flirting is never seriously challenged or worried over by her husband because their mutual love is unquestioned, and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films. Dunne isn’t particularly youthful and doesn’t correspond to any traditional notion of beauty or fertility (and this is, quite significantly, a child-free marriage)… but she is an object of very adult desire on her own terms, and when she and her husband reunite it is too on her own terms.
It is thus hardly a surprise that the screenwriter, Viña Delmar, was a woman — and in turn, hardly a surprise that she enjoyed a lifelong, intimate and fulfilling collaboration with her husband. And it’s not any big shock that her novel Bad Girl was the source of one of the most socially progressive and profoundly compassionate films about real people ever made in Hollywood — you can feel that sensibility dripping from the screen here. But as much as Delmar creates the groundwork for Dunne to do her stuff, Dunne single-handedly creates this person and makes her character live and breathe. So, indeed, does the entire cast, even if they stand largely in her wake. It’s a pity that Ralph Bellamy’s one-dimensional but amusing rancher is unceremoniously discarded well before the finish; it felt as if like there were comedic possibilities there that went unexplored, but the film certainly picks up the pace once he’s gone. (Maybe I was just excited to see Bellamy be something besides a boring doormat for a change.)
Yet again, the warning must apply — prepare to stick with The Awful Truth and live with its strange, ebbing, gradually rising pace if you’re new to it. I personally wouldn’t be surprised if I rated it even more highly upon a revisit that’s sure to come soon. The last act is simply full of jolts of pleasure — and I just can’t get Dunne’s expression in her final shot out of my head, if you know what I mean.