Our review of The Cary Grant Box Set, published February 13th, 2006, is also available.
Mr. Smith Goes to Warriner (Lucy, that is).
"The Awful Truth" was a play by Arthur Richman that first appeared in 1922 and later served as the basis for several films. There was a 1925 silent effort, starring Agnes Ayres and Warner Baxter, and three sound versions. The first of those was an early talkie in 1929 featuring Ina Claire (who had headed the Broadway cast), and the last was a 1953 Columbia picture entitled Let's Do It Again with Jane Wyman and Ray Milland. It was the 1937 version, however, that was the definitive one. With Leo McCarey directing and Cary Grant and Irene Dunne starring, almost two months of shooting was completed in August 1937. The film opened in October to widespread critical and audience approval. Later, it would receive five Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor (Ralph Bellamy), and Screenplay, but only Leo McCarey as Best Director would be an actual winner.
Columbia has now released this screwball comedy classic on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Jerry and Lucy Warriner are an upper class New York couple who decide to divorce. The reason is a mutual suspicion of infidelity after Lucy finds out that Jerry wasn't in Florida when he said he was and Jerry finds out that Lucy spent the night in an inn with her music teacher after a car breakdown. With 60 days to go until the divorce is final, Lucy finds time heavy on her hands. Her Aunt Patsy tries to set her up temporarily with a rich Oklahoma oilman named Daniel, but Lucy actually falls for him. Jerry, who's still around because he has visitation rights to Mr. Smith, the dog, tries everything he can to break up the relationship, thinking that Daniel isn't the man for Lucy.
Meanwhile, Jerry also gets involved with someone else—an heiress named Barbara Vance. Lucy, who is beginning to have second thoughts about her and Jerry's divorce, tries to break Jerry and Barbara up, going so far as to crash a get-together at the Vance family home where she pretends to be Jerry's sister and parodies the cabaret act of one of Jerry's former flames. In order to get her away from the Vance family before she can cause even more trouble, Jerry offers to drive Lucy home, but she has other ideas.
The Awful Truth is perhaps the quintessential screwball comedy. It certainly has all the key production elements including the genre's perhaps most identified actor (Cary Grant), one of its favourite actresses (Irene Dunne), everyone's favourite other man (Ralph Bellamy), Asta the dog (here called Mr. Smith), a key director (Leo McCarey), and the usual ridiculous but very funny plot. Except that in this case, there's even less plot than usual. Basically, everything depends on the lead couple. They have to be good because there's no safety net to draw our attention if they fail. There's no mystery angle like in The Thin Man, no musical or theatrical sub-plot like in Twentieth Century, no massive supporting casts of the sort that populate Capra's best work. No, there's just Grant and Dunne, starting off together at first as the ideal couple, then Dunne on her own with Grant trying to undermine her, then Grant alone with Dunne trying to undermine him, and then finally the two tentatively perhaps reuniting. The film is a triumph for the two stars who exhibit the excellence of their skills throughout. Perhaps no scene demonstrates that excellence better than the one in the nightclub where Lucy (Dunne) and Daniel (Bellamy) run into Jerry (Grant) who's there with new girlfriend, Dixie Belle. It turns out that Dixie Belle is also the featured performer, and when she does her rather cheesy act featuring a song punctuated by some interesting wind effects on her dress, the reactions of the watching Lucy and Jerry (and Daniel) are worth the price of admission alone.
By 1937, Cary Grant already had some two-dozen films behind him, but he was only just starting to really come into his own. Topper (Hal Roach) had been a big success and The Toast of New York (RKO) provided more positive press, but it was with The Awful Truth that Grant confirmed his pre-eminence in the screwball genre. More gems would follow, including Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story, but none topped The Awful Truth for its purity of form and none offered a Grant as free of the outrageous mugging that he was sometimes prone to. If you want to see why Cary Grant was the king of screwball comedy, this film is the one to watch.
Nowadays, too many people would say "Irene Who?," but anyone at all in tune with classic American cinema won't have to think twice. Adept at comedy, but able also to turn her hand to serious drama with ease, Irene Dunne was already a star in 1937 with a string of major films behind her including a number of pre-Code titles and the more recent Magnificent Obsession (1935) and Showboat (1936). More significantly for The Awful Truth, she'd been a standout in the 1936 Columbia screwball comedy Theodora Goes Wild. She's top-billed in The Awful Truth and would remain so for a decade. Dunne's other screwball outing with Grant would be 1940's My Favorite Wife (RKO). Her opportunities to shine in The Awful Truth are many, but to me the most memorable sequence is her appearance at the Vances' where she pretends to be Jerry's slightly sleazy sister and performs a hilarious version of Dixie Belle's nightclub act.
Any appreciation of The Awful Truth would be incomplete without mention of Ralph "never-got-the-girl" Bellamy. Usually appearing as a naïve out-of-town visitor to the big city, Bellamy was the rebound-guy for divorced or jilted women in what seemed like countless comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s. His role as Rosalind Russell's prospective husband after her divorce from Cary Grant in His Girl Friday is perhaps his other best-remembered performance of this type. But it couldn't top his efforts as the innocent cowboy/oilman visiting New York with his mother in The Awful Truth—efforts that included his initial appearance in the film where he's singing "Where the buffalo roam" to himself; or where he manages to make a complete fool of himself dancing a lumbering jitterbug with Lucy; or his parting line to Lucy when he realizes she may not be the innocent he thought—"Well, I guess a man's best friend is his mother."
With these three performers in top form, what else do you need? Well, how about delightfully witty dialogue, some good physical comedy, and stunning production design and costuming. Under the assured direction of veteran Leo McCarey, the film just zips along and is all over far too soon.
The many pleasures of The Awful Truth could only be enhanced by a fine DVD transfer that would allow us to savour them fully. Unfortunately, Columbia has not seen fit to accord the film the effort it deserves. It seems to have been treated as just another old catalog title, much as Columbia is doing with too many of its recent such releases. There's been no apparent effort at restoration of questionable source material. Is it better than the DVD of You Can't Take It with You? Yes, but not by a great deal. Although fairly sharp for the most part, the image is riddled with speckles and scratches, and there's very heavy grain evident.
The mono sound track is in reasonable shape. All the dialogue is clear and age-related hiss and crackle is minimal. Subtitling is provided in English, French, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese.
The Awful Truth has certainly been on the list of must-sees for anyone who's interested in the top comedies of the 1930s. It has all the defining elements of the screwball genre. For anyone looking for an introduction to this type of film, there's no better choice. The film has my highest recommendation. Disappointing, however, is its lackluster presentation on DVD. The film itself still makes the DVD worth a purchase, but it could have been so much better.
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