24th Apr2018

‘The Awful Truth’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, Cecil Cunningham, Armand Duvalle | Written by Viña Delmar | Directed by Leo McCarey


Cary Grant plays Jerry Warriner, a New York socialite who’s just returned from a Florida vacation. We meet him bragging in the locker room: “What wives don’t know won’t hurt them!” Jerry’s Wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne), has also been away, supposedly to visit her aunt. So why has she strolled in with a handsome French gentleman? Jerry’s jealousy – not to mention his double standards – sends him into a fit of rage. They argue and Lucy files for divorce (“Marriage is a beautiful thing,” the lawyer insists, as he covers the phone to bicker with his wife).

The rest of the film covers the months before the divorce goes through, as Lucy meets a new suitor and Jerry can’t leave her alone, always finding a reason to gatecrash her life. It’s the proto-rom-com stalker setup, although lovesick Lucy winds up behaving just as badly. The fact is, both divorcees are dead in the arms of their new lovers, only coming alive in one another’s company – even if it is to fight. And what fantastic fighting it is, with classic machine gun dialogue courtesy of writer Viña Delmar, who only ever wrote two screenplays.

Cary Grant struggled with director Leo McCarey’s improvisational style, to the extent that he wanted to buy himself out of his contract. Thank goodness he failed, because McCarey was instrumental in forging the Grant persona that would imprint on cinema thereon. This is the loose, funny, charming Grant we know; a dignified kind of goofy that would define the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and would later cast magic with Hitchcock.

McCarey, who was also instrumental in establishing Laurel & Hardy (not a bad CV, overall), hailed from the silent era, and his theatrical style brings great energy and relentless pacing to the film. No wonder it was one of the most popular movies of 1937, and no wonder he won the Oscar for Best Director. The Awful Truth sets a template for broad, semi-improvised comedy which survives until today. (That’s right: Lord and Miller are doing nothing new!)

It hails from a time when a snappy script would trump the slightest demand for unpredictability. Indeed, the whole film is predicated on our knowledge that Jerry and Lucy will end up together. It’s also predicated on the fantastical notion that two educated adults in love would ever spend so much time being unwilling to let their guard down and simply talk to each other. But where would be the fun in that?

There are the expected tropes of the genre – for example, the inevitable moment where both parties bump into each other in a restaurant with their new partners and it becomes a catastrophic double date. But there are also truly inspired moments, like when the magistrate tests the loyalty of the Warriners’ dog in the courtroom in order to award custody; or the scene where Lucy locks her ex-husband and her music teacher in the bedroom, and then tries to impress her would-be mother-in-law while the stags brawl next door.

We’re dealing with cinema over 80 years old, so it’s to be expected that we run into some, shall we say, “incongruent values”. Thankfully, most of what dates The Awful Truth is innocuous, ranging from the cute (Lucy and her new fiancé don’t even kiss before the upcoming wedding), to the dubious (a Japanese house servant is skilled in jujitsu, naturally), to the disappointing (the assumption that Lucy’s aunt is an “old tennis ball” beyond the scope of dating is cringingly ageist).

But these are bumps on the road to an outrageous drunken farce of a showdown, and a sweet (and highly suggestive) final scene. The Awful Truth is a sharp, smart, funny piece about the gallivanting, jobless, privileged class in New York, long before Gossip Girl starting writing his/her column. While the film overall doesn’t quite match the best-in-class likes of Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story or His Girl Friday, it’s a breezy joy to watch, not to mention a landmark in the career of its male star.

Extras include a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1939, which also stars Cary Grant; a video essay about Grant from film critic David Cairns; an interview with film critic Gary Giddins about Leo McCarey and the screwball genre and an interview with Irene Dunne from 1978.

The Awful Truth is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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