The Awful Truth (1937, Leo McCarey)

No wonder Oklahoma oilman Ralph Bellamy looked familiar – he was Hildy’s falsely-arrested fiancee in His Girl Friday. Hmmm, also third billed in Pretty Woman fifty years later. And no wonder Irene Dunne did not look familiar – I’ve never seen her before. This is now the earliest Cary Grant movie I’ve seen, and he was already unmistakably Cary-Grant-ish in it.


Based on a play (which was previously filmed twice) and partly improvised on-set, a screwball comedy, which is just to say that the storyline is less important than getting the most comic potential out of each moment. I thought it held together pretty well, except for a bit towards the end where it suddenly swerves to have Dunne destroy Grant’s affair with a rich young woman, as if realizing that too much time had been spent destroying Dunne’s own affairs while he was getting off the hook.

Grant and Dunne get divorced but still see each other at nightclubs and on court-ordered dog visitation days. Very suspicious of each other, but still mutually attracted, each tries to break up the other’s real or imagined romances. I can’t tell if the movie is smartly concealing the truth from the audience (is Dunne really having an affair with her music teacher? where was Grant when he claimed to be in Florida?) to keep things tensely ambiguous, or if we’re just supposed to assume that they’re cheating on each other and the movie can’t address it directly because of the hollywood production code. Katy says her grandmother would not have approved of the ending, where the two wait until the clock strikes midnight (signaling that their divorce is final) to get back together (adultery!).


Senses of Cinema:

Who else would make the final scene of such a loud screwball comedy as The Awful Truth end as quietly as it does? Compare the film with Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Twentieth Century (1934) – Hawks’ strategy is to go faster, louder, zanier. McCarey, by contrast, slows down The Awful Truth at its climax, startlingly so. The ending, suddenly, is not screwball. This is something deeper, more realistically romantic, than “sophisticated comedy.”

A. Vanneman:

Remarkably, Dunne holds her own, thanks to an excellent script and her own acting. … Classy, yes, very, but not condescending, and very light on her feet. She’s always one step ahead of Jerry, a tantalizing gadfly that never lets him relax into his godlike perfection.

Ralph Bellamy gives us a very nice ride as Dan Leeson, the interloping cowpoke boyfriend from Tulsa. Yes, he’s corn-fed and lives with his ma, but he sure knows how to fill out a top coat, doesn’t he? It’s a very nice touch to make Dan so open and good-natured, laughing with naïve delight at the slightest witticism. “Hey, that’s funny! You know, you’re funny!” How can you get mad at someone who laughs at your jokes? If you didn’t want him to laugh, why did you tell a joke in the first place?

In addition to fine performances from the leads, The Awful Truth shines for its beautiful mingling of verbal, character-driven humor and superbly paced slapstick. The tale of the hats, the fatal mix-up involving Jerry’s and Armand’s derbies, is probably the most elegant hat-play on film, Stan and Ollie gone uptown. McCarey almost seems to be working on a dare — taking the lowest piece of vaudeville shtick, putting it on Park Avenue, and making it work. 10 Nothing is forced; each step in the farce is quite reasonable and sensible on its own — little bits of paper floating randomly together to form a picture of disaster.


Leo McCarey won best director at the oscars, but The Life of Emile Zola and The Good Earth beat it for picture, actress, supporting actor and screenplay. Very good movie. Katy liked it too.