Hollywood loved making comedies about divorce, and Leo McCarey’s 1937 film, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, was the best of the bunch.
Recently I was asked to put together a list of my all-time favorite films—not a greatest films of all time list, but a list of movies that were special to me personally. In the process of doing this, I found out that a lot of them were comedies. I need laughter to keep going—it’s as simple as that.
Anyway, one of my films was The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey’s 1937 romantic comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. They play a married couple, Jerry and Lucy, who get divorced after a spat caused by Jerry’s unwarranted jealousy. Lucy takes up with a rancher from Oklahoma played by Ralph Bellamy, but Jerry is on hand to sabotage the relationship in amusing ways. He, in turn, gets engaged to a society girl, but Lucy puts a stop to that by pretending to be his low-class alcoholic sister. There’s never any doubt that what they really want is to get back together—the comedy lies in how many ridiculous twists and turns they will take in trying to avoid the inevitable.
Too mild to be considered a true “screwball” comedy, The Awful Truth is nevertheless one of the most beloved comedies of the era. I think this is largely due to the skill of the veteran McCarey in inspiring relaxed, amusing performances from the actors. They don’t need to try to be funny—they seem happy just being themselves and letting the lines come out as if they were thinking them up on the spot. Cary Grant has an almost dry, deadpan style here—even his body language is funny. Dunne, who too often comes off as smug in other movies, is having so much fun in this one that she’s willing to look ridiculous, and that makes all the difference. The best scenes involve Bellamy, an excellent fool, with Dunne defensive about her new beau’s limitations, and Grant skewering him without mercy. McCarey, one of the original comic geniuses of American film, is never above a simple gag. Grant hiding behind a door and tickling Dunne while she’s trying to talk to Bellamy, the rancher’s passionate love speech interrupted by her sudden inappropriate giggles—it gets me every time.
The Awful Truth is a film about the fun of sparring love partners—a film of smiles and laughter, not the anarchic howling Marx Brothers kind of laughter, but the laughter of pleasure and wit and happiness. The idea is that marriage is inherently funny, yet still worthwhile. No wonder this film was a hit. It was also nominated for five Oscars, winning one for Leo McCarey’s direction.
The Awful Truth is available on DVD.