Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the best of the official Screwball comedies of the thirties, The Awful Truth is
genuinely funny while remaining reasonably adult. There's plenty of slapstick, but the humor
relies on rich characters who reveal a warmth beneath their fancy-dress glamorous lifestyle. The
simple farce also attests to the limitless attraction of real movie stars - actors with
personalities so established, we love them before the show begins. Cary Grant is at his charming
best here, while the underrated Irene Dunne proves herself the comedy equal of Carol Lombard.
When Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) returns from Florida, he can't account for his
lack of a suntan, and his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) refuses to make excuses for the time she's been
spending with Armand Duvalle, her vocal teacher (Alexander D'Arcy). They divorce out of picque,
with Lucy getting custody of the family terrier who brought them together in the first place. Both
parties are too proud to admit they've made a mistake. Lucy starts up a romance with Oklahoma millionaire
cowboy Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), while Jerry chases socialite Molly Lamont (Barbara Vance). As the
90-day waiting period for the divorce to become final clicks away, each is subconsciously determined
to thwart the other's romantic plans.
When the Warriners break up at the beginning of The Awful Truth, there's no doubt in our
minds that events and circumstances will bring them back together. The joy is in getting there -
the miraculously un-dated script of this romantic comedy has a clever joke every few seconds, and
there must be a big laugh, a really big laugh, every minute or so. 2
The Awful Truth was a big success, and was often compared to Bringing up Baby, the Howard
Hawks picture that was a fairly contemporary flop. Both pictures have the standard,
My Man Godfrey - issue madcap heiress
for a heroine, the kind who responds to each serious question with a half-unbalanced laugh before
coming back with her twisted answer. The Hawks film has twice the incident and works overtime to
be as ridiculous as possible, with people dressed up funny and running around with butterfly nets.
The Awful Truth has a fondness for people who behave at least a little bit like real people.
McCarey's film exploits a cute animal for a few laughs (a relentlessly toy-obsessed wire haired terrier)
but otherwise keeps the interaction limited to the interactions of its human cast.
In fact, the production is so sparse on this one, Harry Cohn must have loved the bottom line -
except for a nightclub scene, the sets are limited to a few standard apartments and salons.
Its all in the faces, as when the odd threesome of Grant, Dunne, and Bellamy watch Dixie Belle Lee
(Joyce Compton) disgrace herself with a terrible bad-taste nightclub song, 'Gone with the Wind'.
Every time we cut back to the table, there's a new set of hilarious but credible reactions from the
trio. Although the film has its share of physical gags, such as Grant interrupting a vocal recital
by falling out of his chair, or making Dunne giggle by poking her with a pencil, the best reactions
come from believable moments of embarassment and social stress - proto sitcom situations that nevertheless
are real enough to imagine happening to us.
There's also a generous helping of restraint in the humor - the Warriners' digs at one another are
never overly cruel, just playful, as when Grant maneuvers his ex-wife-to-be into a tacky exhibition
of swing dancing. The situation is just serious enough to keep us caring that they get back together.
The Awful Truth does have a bias in favor of New York upperclass sophisticated types;
nobody seems to work too hard or live in anything less than a fancy apartment, although the
Warriners' source of income, a mine, seems to have dried up. Always making with the smart-talk,
going out on the town nightly in formal wear, these folk are the perfect fantasies for a depression
America to forget their woes - one expects the camera to cut to an underfed Mia Farrow in the
audience, gazing at the screen.
The ribbing is reserved for hicks - midwestern new-money hick Ralph Bellamy, and southern-trash
entertainer hick Joyce Compton. Coarse and thick-skulled, the hicks are less unmannered than they
are just plain evolutionarily-challenged. The concept of the square must have been around since
Revolutionary days, but when Dunne and Grant have to deal with the exuberant crudity of this pair,
we can't help but approve of their sympathetic condescension.
Bellamy's buffoonish mama's boy was so successful, Howard Hawks ripped him off intact for his
His Girl Friday, shortly thereafter. Bellamy deserved an Oscar for the self-effacing
thankless performances he provided these pictures. They're actually more like professional suicide,
as he's so good at it, I'm sure audiences assumed he really was a dopey mama's boy.
A few words about Irene Dunne. Cary Grant's a known quantity, but Dunne is less visible to modern
audiences. An incredible class act, she shines in almost everything she did. In these comedies, she
makes the latter-day Doris Days look obvious and crude, and she can be heartbreaking in her musicals.
The James Whale Showboat has twice the power of the MGM remake because of her. Her dramatic
singing was soul-wrenching. 1
Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Awful Truth is a delight, but not because of the image quality.
As with last month's
You Can't Take it With You, the film element
used is largely unrestored, and the combination of a grainy, blah film image, with (?) what looks like
a careless encoding gives us a fairly unattractive-looking disc. The quality varies greatly, but
after starting off halfway clean, the bad sections show up more and more frequently. I'm glad I saw
it, and the movie is so funny that it's not much of a distraction, but the disc doesn't give much
of an indication of how slick the original 'silver screen' picture must have looked.
The audio has been given a good working-over and I'm happy to say it's all as clear as a bell, compared
to older 16mm prints.
There are no extras, save for a few cross promotional trailers. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Awful Truth rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 29, 2003
1. With that in mind, Savant recommends a stinker of a musical called
Sweet Adeline, from 1935 or so. The story is a total loss, but there are 4 or 5 killer songs
therein. "Lonely Feet" and "Why Was I Born" are incredible, even with sub-Busby Berkeley choreography.
I'm really grateful to my stint at MGM Home Video in the 90s, to make me watch all these pictures.
2. The 1997 movie My Best Friend's Wedding is a permutation of this
infinitely re-arrangeable plot. Julia Roberts considers herself married to her ex-boyfriend, and sets out
to wedge herself between him and his new fiancée. There's a nice flexibility to the movie, which
works as a bonafide 30s style farce, but with 1997 people and situations. The basic idea of staying
chaste until a divorce decree became final was probably a joke to many in 1937, and wouldn't even be
an issue now, but it's nice to see both films deal with people trying to follow the rules of proper
romantic behavior - or not follow them.
3. David Kelly has some good info on THE AWFUL TRUTH, 3.3.03:
Thanks for the very good job reviewing The Awful
Truth. I have seen the film many times with audiences
(the New Beverly Cinema, UCLA, and LACMA have all
shown it in the last few years) and it never fails to
get very big laughs, so many in fact that some lines
are never heard. You are also correct about how adult
the film is with Dunne making fun of her bust size
during her dance at the end and the Grant line about
how he and Dunne didn't need the ice water sent by
their friends to their hotel room on their honeymoon
being just a couple examples. The legend is that
McCarey had the cast improvise a lot during the
Like you I think Dunne was wonderful in the film and
to me is THE neglected female film star of the 20th
century. Sarris writes that her Lucy Warriner is "one
of the most uproarious creations of the comic cinema"
and Richard Schickle in one of the best obituaries I
have ever read of a star (if you haven't seen it I can
send you a copy) said "the art of screen acting is
appreciably poorer because on the whole it lacks the
kind of tact, delicacy and, yes slyness with which
Irene Dunne let undermining truth slip forth." Finally
James McCourt wrote that there is no such thing as a
taste for Irene Dunne and that "such a metaphysical
indulgence would be akin to having a taste for
friendship, for rain, or for the quality of mercy. Her
art is an essential in the maintenance of an American
sanity." But of course Agee and Kael hated her so who
I think that the reason Dunne is far less known today
than she should be is that so many of her films were
remade and her original versions were withdrawn from
circulation (television and theater) as was the studio
practice at the time. Cimarron, Back Street, Love
Affair, Magnificent Obsession, Show Boat, The Awful
Truth, Roberta, My Favorite Wife, Anna and the King of
Siam were all remade in the 50s and 60s and thus were
not shown on television or rereleased to theaters. For
example Roberta was not shown on TV until the mid-70s
during an Astaire and Rogers week on KTLA.
Not to bore you any longer but one of the worst
oversights in AMPAS history is that fact that Dunne
was never given an honorary Oscar or Thalberg award
(her charity work was immense and St. John's Hospital
in Santa Monica has a statue of her in their garden).
She lived to be 92 and I know that many people
implored the Academy to honor her but they never did
(Bellamy got one) - to their shame.
I appreciate your work as you are one of the few
online film reviewers with a knowledge or even a sense
of film history. Keep up the good work, David Kelly
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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