“The Awful Truth” (1937)
by A.J. Hakari
Of all the cinematic barriers my suspension of disbelief has had to vault over, romantic relationships have been among the trickiest to master. Forgiving flaws in the most ridiculously elaborate heists and accepting the likes of ill-tempered, bipedal raccoons as characters are a breeze, yet having to buy whirlwind courtships that leave two people who barely know one another totally in love raises no end of eyebrows or red flags. This goes double for those tales in which our leads bicker their way through the run time and towards an inevitably joyful finish, despite their verbal sparring offering little evidence of any genuine shared affection. In most cases, these pictures are more concerned with spreading out wacky set pieces than with convincing us viewers that the couple at hand actually belongs together, with 1937’s The Awful Truth being the rare bird that manages to pull off both. While even comedies that touch upon the subject of divorce tend to skew dark and emotionally taxing, this flick exhibits a consistently playful attitude while acknowledging the gravity of the situation it depicts. Its jaunty disposition may seem at odds with the domestic disputes that unfold onscreen, but The Awful Truth comes laced with pearls of wit and wisdom aplenty regardless.
All couples lock horns from time to time, but the Warriners have made a second career out of it. Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry (Cary Grant) hurl little white lies each other’s way on a daily basis, but when both are caught in compromising positions (from which neither is willing to budge or admit defeat), the final straw is drawn. Just as impulsively as they decided to get hitched in the first place, Mr. and Mrs. Warriner climb aboard the bullet train to Splitsville, filing for divorce and quickly seeking out the company of others. But while Lucy and Jerry respectively cozy up to a folksy oil man (Ralph Bellamy) and selection of showgirls, neither can seem to stay out of the same social circles for very long. With bad blood between the two still percolating, the exes-to-be gladly sabotage one another’s efforts at rediscovering romance — oblivious to the fact that doing so is bringing those old fond feelings of theirs back to the surface, kicking and screaming.
Released as Grant was fine-tuning his screwball screen persona, The Awful Truth rests as one of his less manic vehicles of the era (although it still bears a zany streak in its own right). Its comedy of errors is deliberately drawn out over its 90-minute length, with the story savoring the precarious pickles its characters try worming their way out of rather than lob new situations their way rapid-fire. Director Leo McCarey (Duck Soup) gets a devilish kick out of taking both protagonists to task, watching as each slowly twists their knife into the other’s back and smiling as they subsequently flounder in whatever predicament their pride has gotten them into this time. The Awful Truth is in no particular hurry, a move that enables the humor to come across as doubly personal and doubly funny. Of course, the whole thing can only work if its players regard one another with the right blend of scorn and adoration, but fortunately, this ditty has a pair primed for war in its corner. Dunne and Grant execute as delicate of an act as has ever been asked of them, effortlessly getting the audience to believe that no matter how many yanked-out hairs their marriage has left in its wake, the two really are hopelessly daffy for one another. Not laying on the derision too thickly or telegraphing their warm and fuzzy sides too much, the actors supply an engaging battle of wills that has an equal shot at healing or widening their divide come the end.
Also tuned into an appropriately tongue-in-cheek spirit is The Awful Truth‘s Oscar-nominated screenplay. Penned by Viña Delmar, the script palatably paces out its more large-scale hijinks and multitude of cutting barbs. It finds a nice comedic middle ground, feeling lively but never moving so fast that its most scathing witticisms get lost in the shuffle. But while ample room for one-liners is allowed on both sides of the gender divide, The Awful Truth seems to stack the deck ever so slightly in Jerry’s favor, one of the movie’s few (albeit minor) missteps. Between him derailing Lucy’s relationship with Bellamy’s hayseed and her throwing a wrench in Jerry’s fling with an heiress (Molly Lamont), noticeably more screen time is allotted to the former. We’re past the halfway mark before Dunne’s character gets to show her spouse the what-for, though while an improved sense of balance in this area would have been great and maybe even led to more creatively chaotic comedy, one can’t fault the jolly results we do see terribly much. In addition to Grant and Dunne’s escapades, the laughs are further bolstered by a fantastic supporting cast, with Bellamy exuding aw-shucks innocence, Cecil Cunningham offering up snappy words of wisdom of Lucy’s brassy aunt, and Joyce Compton easily stealing her single scene as a chorus girl with a risqué routine.
Gentle as a lamb in comparison to the venomous, no-holds-barred relationship comedies that would spring up in the following decades, The Awful Truth remains as whimsical as it is wise. It’s a meeting of acting, writing, and directing talent all on the precise same wavelength that doesn’t come around very often, creating an entity that’s funny as hell while earning every one of the emotional beats on which it has its eye. Elegant and bawdy just when it needs to be, The Awful Truth comes through as wickedly classy fun.