The Awful Truth

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.

Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne
Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne

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.

Cary Grant, Irene Dunne

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.

Cary Grant Irene Dunne The Awful Truth
Cary Grant, Irene Dunne

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.

It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night, 1934, Columbia Pictures. Starring Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 105 minutes.

Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with dashing King Westley, much against the wishes of her father, who plans to do everything in his considerable power to keep the marriage from going forward. Ellie jumps ship while in Florida and hops on a bus to New York in an effort to reunite with King, and it’s there she meets up with down-on-his-luck reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable).

It doesn’t take Peter too long to figure out just who Ellie is and what a story he has on his hands, and he takes full advantage of the situation. What he doesn’t count on, of course, is falling for the foolish, yet appealing, Ellie, and she in turn begins to feel something for him. But that doesn’t stop her from her wanting to defy her father and stay married to King.

This was one one of the last films released before the Motion Picture Production Code began t0 be enforced, and it shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There’s still the distinct element of propriety between a non-married couple, even when Clark Gable strips down to his underwear (sans t-shirt, which is said to have cost that industry thousands of dollars for about a decade because of one simple scene. If Gable didn’t wear a t-shirt, well, your average American male apparently didn’t feel a need to do so, either. No doubt a legend of some truth, some myth).

Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

But the dialogue is subtly racier, and details surrounding the case are as well. If you aren’t familiar with the restrictions of the the Code, you may not pick it up, but the sexier, saucier quality is there in spades. It’s largely a product of the chemistry between the two stars, who transcend the almost stereotypical nature of their roles and create a film that proves witty dialogue can compensate for an average plot line.

It Happened One Night won what are considered the top five major Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin) — a feat matched only by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Interestingly, it didn’t initially do well at the box office, but eventually took off as word of mouth from moviegoers and critics got around. Critics remarked on its original dialogue more than the story itself, as well as the interaction between the two stars.

Both Colbert and Gable were said to have been reluctant to star in the film, but contractual agreements brought about the pairing. Colbert, after shooting was completed, told friends she’d just finished “the worst picture in the world.” At the time, Columbia Pictures was best known for B-movies, and for other studios to lend their stars to Columbia was generally a punishment or a desperate move in bargaining.

Colbert did not expect to win the Oscar and didn’t plan to attend the ceremony. She was at the train station when studio representatives arrived to “drag her to the awards” if necessary, by orders of producer Harry Cohn, who’d learned she would, in fact, win the award that night (winners were announced prior to the ceremony at that time). She arrived in time to accept her award and returned to the train station later that evening, where the train is said to have been held for her. Clearly, a different era.

Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable It Happened One Night
Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable

The film has been remade countless times in countless ways, including a variation that is substantially different in tone and ending than It Happened One Night, but parallels with the concept of the dissatisfied, well-off young woman who runs from her situation straight into the arms of the errant reporter, and that is Roman Holiday. A good director with the right writer can take a strong idea and make a movie that is right for the times, classic for the ages, and different from what’s been done before. Both films should be on the must-seen list of all classic film fans.


Libeled Lady

Libeled Lady, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy. Directed by Jack Conway. B&W, 98 minutes.

When a reporter’s mistake leads to a calamitous lawsuit, the newspaper’s editor has no qualms about marrying off his jilted bride to an unscrupulous ladies’ man so he, in turn, can entrap a snooty heiress.

One of the top screwball comedies of the era, Libeled Lady takes the standard war of the sexes and doubles it with two couples facing farcical situations on the road to true love.

Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is set to marry Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) when he discovers his tell-all front page story about a socialite, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), is false and she’s set to sue the newspaper for the astronomical amount of $5 million dollars (remember, this is 1936).

Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy Libeled Lady
Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy

Figuring the best way out of the situation is to turn the heiress into the homewrecker the paper reported her to be, Haggerty hires Bill Chandler (William Powell) to lure her into a compromising situation with a married man.

First, however, he has to marry Chandler off to his bride-to-be to make him the married man in question. Of course, nothing goes as it’s supposed to (how could it?), and there’s a smart and sassy ending that isn’t really an ending at all.

This film was a return to the brassier, outlandish characters Harlow was known and loved for in her earlier roles. Her most recent work had taken a different direction, one she’s said to have wanted, but it wasn’t as well received by audiences. Luckily, they loved her in Libeled Lady, as did critics, and the studio took note, planning more similar roles for the future.

In real life, William Powell and Jean Harlow were dating, and many expected them to be married. That never happened, in part, it was rumored, because Powell was reluctant, perhaps because Harlow had already been married three times at such a young age, or perhaps because of the failure of his own marriage to another young blonde comedienne, Carole Lombard. Sadly, Harlow died of kidney failure just eight months after the release of Libeled Lady. She was 26.

Loy, Powell, Harlow, Tracy Libeled Lady
Myrna Loy, William Powell, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy

The availability of all four stars for this film was a result of the studio system, a benefit of that controversial and convoluted method of managing actors and actresses. The studio in particular had been looking for yet another successful Powell/Loy pairing; by this time the two were well-established as onscreen gold.

Libeled Lady was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to another Powell/Loy vehicle, The Great Ziegfield. Powell was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role that year for My Man Godfrey.

This is a movie any fan of screwball comedies will enjoy, with a top-notch cast playing at the height of their careers. Well worth the watch.

Myrna Loy, William Powell in Libeled Lady
Myrna Loy, William Powell

Midnight (1939)

Midnight, 1939, Paramount Pictures. Starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. B&W, 94 minutes.

This witty screwball comedy about devious means justifying honorable — or at least desirable — ends, is coupled with a common fantasy of many, that of a benevolent benefactor who, with one grand motion, makes dreams come true.

Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) is a showgirl escaping a run of misfortune in Monte Carlo by way of train to Paris. She arrives with twenty-five centimes to her name, and talks cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) into driving her from venue to venue in an effort to find work.

Midnight Claudette Colbert Don Ameche
Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche

It’s a failed endeavor, however, and Eve is left with nowhere to go, until Tibor offers his home, which she adamantly refuses. He’s insistent, and first chance she gets she escapes his cab and runs to the nearest open door.

Here she gains entrance to an event for the social elite by passing off a pawn ticket as her invitation. Once inside, she meets Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) who has an enticing offer:  lure dashing, single and wealthy Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) away from Georges wife, Helene (Mary Astor), and Georges will pay all expenses, including an extravagant wardrobe and luxury accommodations.

John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert

Of course Eve has already started to fall for Tibor, despite her best intentions, and she’s unwittingly complicated this fairy godmother situation by taking the name Baroness Czerny, as in wife of Tibor, who tracks her down after he learns of her deception.

This movie delivers all the wonderful fun a top-notch cast with a script by  Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder promises. Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche perhaps don’t make an obvious pairing, although they did work on three films together (this one being notably the best), but the match works in sophistication, banter and sly humor.

Claudette Colbert, Francis Lederer, Mary Astor, John Barrymore in Midnight
Claudette Colbert, Frances Lederer, Mary Astor, John Barrymore

The true delight — albeit far from assured prior to production — is John Barrymore’s smart and affable performance. Barrymore was deep in decline due to alcoholism by this time, and was generally unreliable, unable to memorize scripts or even show up on the set. His wife, Elaine Barrie, had a co-starring role and is credited with helping keep him in check.

However, as noted by co-star Mary Astor, Barrymore was such a highly skilled actor that despite all his problems, he was “able to act rings around everyone else.” High praise, given the quality of the entire cast.

Astor herself was several months pregnant at the time of filming, although her character was not, and numerous clever means were used to hide her changing figure.

Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche.png
Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Don Ameche, Claudette Colbert

(A bit of  background trivia — in 1924, a 40-year-old Barrymore had an affair with his co-star, then 17-year-old Astor, although the relationship faced severe constraints by her parents and eventually failed. By the time this film was made they were reportedly on good terms, each having survived a separate scandal or two in the meantime.)

Today considered one of the top romantic comedies of the era, although surprisingly perhaps one of the lesser known, Midnight is everything it promises to be, and a must-see for classic movie fans.