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 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:
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:
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 knows.
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