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Close-Up on Leo McCarey’s "The Awful Truth": Love and Remarriage

Suspicion will never make for a happy marriage. True, but it does make for great comedy.
Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937) is showing February 13 - March 15, 2017 in the United Kingdom in the series The Rom Com Variations.
Leo McCarey’s 1937 screwball classic The Awful Truth is the epitome of a sub-genre dubbed by philosopher Stanley Cavell the “comedy of remarriage.” In the film, husband and wife Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) succumb to their marital suspicions and embark on an easier-said-than-done divorce. He returns home from an unspecified dalliance, complete with fake Florida tan (ever the gentleman, he bronzes so as to save Lucy the embarrassment of getting asked why her husband looks pale after spending time in the sun), but upon his arrival, Lucy herself is nowhere to be found. She must be with her Aunt Patsy, Jerry assures his guests, that is until Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham) shows up sans niece. Then Lucy does enter, dressed to the nines and accompanied by her dashing if dimwitted music teacher, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy). They were out the night before, she says, had some car problems, and had to spend the evening at what she swears was an innocent inn. And maybe it was. Maybe she is as virtuous as Jerry is guilty. It doesn’t matter, though; neither party is convinced. So here we have the first awful truth: both sides are complicit in the impending separation and it is likely that each is partly to blame. A Warriner friend affirms that suspicion will never make for a happy marriage. True, but so far it makes for great comedy.
Initiated by their less-than-encouraging lawyer, who bitterly argues with his own wife while proclaiming that “marriage is a beautiful thing,” the divorce proceedings are soon underway. As Lucy tells it, she and Jerry were all set to live happily ever after—until now. Part of that bliss included the very thing that brought them together in the first place: their scene-stealing pet, Mr. Smith, the talented jumping bean terrier “played” by Skippy (a.k.a. Asta), as seen in The Thin Man (1934) and later in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Now embroiled in a K-9 custody battle, this little pup has a number of delightful platforms, hiding his eyes for a treat and getting up to acrobatic monkeyshines with a hidden bowler hat. Going for the easy “aww”s, McCarey cleverly alleviates any cantankerous tension between the characters (and there really isn’t much) by cutting to Mr. Smith as he curiously looks on like an anxious child.
In the meantime, at the behest of Patsy, Lucy gets involved with Dan Leeson, an Oklahoma oil foil played by Ralph Bellamy with the same sort of bumpkin buffoonery he would emulate three years later in the similarly codified, though far more frenetic, His Girl Friday (1940). Jerry, for his part, finds an air-head rebound with nightclub singer Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), whose embarrassingly risqué act sends mortified shivers down his cultivated spine (at least that’s what it does to him in public).
Like many a Hollywood comedy of its type—urban, affluent, frivolous—the primary protagonists of The Awful Truth reside in an insular, upper crust world. Jerry and Lucy apparently own a coal mine. Perhaps it’s the source of their wealth, perhaps not. All that is important in a film like this is that they are prosperous enough to live a life of leisure, one that affords them the requisite idle playfulness needed to casually get into all sorts of trouble. That’s part of the appeal, of course, that’s what we’re paying to see. An average couple surely wouldn’t be this amusing. This is a social faction adorned by glitzy gowns and elegant dinner jackets; scenes play out on polo grounds and in lavish apartments; and there is always an endless supply of champagne within reach. Dan’s mother (Esther Dale) has her doubts about Lucy, and sure enough, her prospective daughter-in-law does indeed move on. She simply isn’t Dan’s type. She knew it, Mrs. Leeson knew it, and we knew it. Though he too is wealthy, hapless Dan is not New York wealthy. Jerry scoffs at the prospect of Lucy living under the watchful wing of Dan’s doting mother and he derides the notion of Lucy being satisfied in Oklahoma City (if that ever gets dull, as he points out, there’s always Tulsa). It’s all part of a strangely admissible snobbishness that permeates The Awful Truth and much of its filmic brethren. But be honest, which side of this social gap would you rather be on?
As Lucy and Patsy discuss, the young woman’s dilemma boils down to grand laughs versus dependability and security, essentially the key cause for turbulence in most screwball comedies (Grant’s mild-mannered paleontologist and Katherine Hepburn’s ditzy heiress in Bringing Up Baby embody such a comedy gold conflict). In The Awful Truth, the realization of their irrevocably shared silliness seals the deal, and Lucy chooses to have (and Dunne provides) the grandest laugh. Just as she and Dan go their separate ways, Jerry contentedly courts a new fancy in the form of well-to-do Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). In a fantastic scene commencing the film’s third act, Lucy poses as Jerry’s frightfully uncouth and fictitious sister, hilariously sabotaging a prim and proper Vance family gathering in a riotous comedic showcase. It is a knowing bit of tongue-in-cheek jousting at the film’s high society circle, it is the standout single routine in the picture, and it is quite possibly the film’s funniest sequence (even Grant/Jerry can’t help but crack a smile). For this alone Dunne deserved the Oscar nomination she earned for The Awful Truth, one of her four from 1931 to 1940.
Among its points of historical interest, The Awful Truth began a series of recurring collaborations for many of its key figures. It was the first of three films Grant and Dunne made with each other, the farcical My Favorite Wife (1940) (produced by McCarey) and the weepie Penny Serenade (1941) to follow. It was also the first of two films Grant made with Bellamy, the second being His Girl Friday, where the former treats the latter much the same as he does here. Yet while Grant and McCarey worked together again on Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) and An Affair to Remember (1957), the rising star was not pleased with the director’s offhand, improvisational style (Bellamy’s on-the-spot rendition of “Home on the Range,” for instance, which had the director laughing too hard to call “cut” and still ended up in the final film). Grant even tried to get out of the picture during shooting, proposing to switch roles with Bellamy if it would lessen his time on set. The hard feelings were extended with McCarey insisting he basically shaped the affable Grant persona that ultimately defined the actor, for which McCarey says he never received due credit. Who gets such acknowledgement for such a thing is debatable, but there is no doubt The Awful Truth positioned Grant for what became an extraordinary run of films to round out the decade, including Bringing Up Baby and Holiday in 1938, Only Angels Have Wings in 1939 and His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story, both in 1940.
As The Awful Truth amassed six Academy Award nominations, including nods for Bellamy, Delmar, and for best picture, McCarey came away the sole victor, even if he did contend he won for the wrong film, preferring his melodrama Make Way for Tomorrow, released the same year. In any case, if not his most famous film (that honor probably goes to An Affair to Remember), The Awful Truth is likely his best. It is certainly one where his talents are most evident, particularly his expert staging and his fine-tuned sense of comic cutting. From Grant hiding behind a door as Dan reads Lucy a tortuous poem, to the film’s barrage of unexpected entrances and inappropriate actions (and their corresponding reaction shots, Grant’s usually accompanied by a fussy whimper), McCarey was a master at having people in just the right spot at just the right time, either through composition or on-the-nose editing. He also knew when to keep people out of the picture, holding back from off-screen conversations and exchanges (the concealed Grant and D’Arcy getting into a raucous tussle, for example). Even the film’s final shot is a wink-wink exercise in what is better left unseen (and better left insinuated). And yet, for a trendsetting screwball comedy, the zaniness of The Awful Truth is comparatively tame (save for a few pratfalls by Grant and a motorcycle cop ride along). Its ending, in fact, is a surprisingly slow, sweetly intimate resolution, which McCarey eases into with a casual, genuine sincerity.
With a script by Viña Delmar, based on the 1921 Broadway comedy of the same name, The Awful Truth had already been filmed twice before, as a 1925 silent and a 1929 talkie. A radio adaptation followed in 1939 (with Grant and Claudette Colbert) and a remake, Let’s Do It Again, was released in 1953. The 1937 version, however, is in a class by itself. The way it engages Jerry and Lucy in one constantly combative comic reunion after another, with witty repartee and perfectly purposeful accidents, only serves to emphasize the unalterable, inevitable compatibility of this quarrelsome couple. They know each other too well to be permanently divided, and part of the film’s endearing and enduring charm is the romantic familiarity with which the two interact. There is never any doubt that a complete split is out of the question, but it sure is fun to watch the strain. If a couple is planning to get a divorce, this is the way to do it. 

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