The Awful Truth, 1937, Columbia Pictures. Starring Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy. Directed by Leo McCarey. B&W, 90 minutes.
Rapid-fire conversations, a sophisticated script and a cast to match make this one of the definitive screwball comedies of all time.
After a week away on vacation without his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne), Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) returns home to find she spent the night before with her music instructor after their car, uh, broke down. His indignation is not given great weight by Lucy, however, when she learns he not only didn’t spend the week in Florida as he claimed, but went to great lengths to provide evidence he was there. Evidence that betrays him in the end.
The couple begin divorce proceedings, and each enters into relationships with other suitors. Lucy takes up with the reliable, predictable Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), and Jerry sees first a flighty showgirl and later a snooty society heiress. Despite their seeming desire to leave the past behind them, they are flustered by their frequent and often inconvenient run-ins. Whether it’s their ability to push each other’s buttons, jealousy over the other romances or perhaps even true love, it soon becomes evident neither is looking forward to a finalized divorce.
Dunne, who’d made a number of films by the mid-30s, had created a splash in the previous year’s comedy, Theodora Goes Wild, and was in demand for comedic roles. She proved her skills were no fluke with her performance in The Awful Truth, with her balance of sophistication and screwball genius a complementary match for Grant’s style.
This film, in particular Leo McCarey’s directing methods, is credited with establishing the comic persona Grant became known for in his illustrious career. McCarey and Grant famously didn’t get along during production, in fact, Grant tried at one point to buy his way out of the film. It’s said his off-screen unease led to the slightly nervous performance, a quality he brought to most of his future comic roles.
McCarey’s directing style gave him quite a bit of control in the final look of the film, but didn’t always make his stars particularly happy. His reliance on improvisation and the lack of a finished script required Grant, Dunne, Bellamy and the rest of the cast to learn to go with the day’s agenda — or lack thereof — and trust in their director’s vision for the finished product.
It worked, however, and McCarey won the Academy Award for Best Director. Other nominations included Best Picture, Best Actress for Dunne, and Best Supporting Actor for Bellamy.
Today, The Awful Truth is regarded as one of the best screwball comedies in film history. It is a smart, sassy movie, with witty dialogue and clever twists.
The pairing of Grant and Dunne proved popular, and they went on to make two more films together, including My Favorite Wife, which also was to have been directed by McCarey until he was seriously injured in a car accident. If you’ve seen both, you’ll notice the two films have virtually identical endings. Overall, The Awful Truth is the superior film, but don’t let that stop you from seeing My Favorite Wife.