The Awful Truth (1937)

FILM, Film Society
Previously at the Wellington Film Society: a screwball primer.

What has happened to comedy since the end of screwball? An awful lot, not the least of which, the crude masculinisation of a genre once renowned for its strong female roles. Since the golden age of the screwball comedy, which drew to a close in the ’40s with the emergence of the postwar film noir, not nearly enough filmmakers have sought to embrace its delicious conventions. Following the demise of the Hollywood studio system, it wasn’t until the ’70s that Peter Bogdanovich recaptured its spirit with What’s Up Doc? (1972) and They All Laughed (1981); later, the Coen brothers channeled Preston Sturges and Frank Capra with The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003); and in more recent times, television has proven a safe haven for talented female writers and performers with the fast-thinking, fast-talking likes of 30 Rock and Gilmore Girls. And yet, I’m not sure any of these scarce examples do justice to the fundamental charms of the classic screwball conceit. Part of what makes The Awful Truth so unbeatable is its stifling normalcy, and the way the propriety of the world it is set in—not to mention the strict Production Code era it was made in—actually enhances its capacity for comedy, an outrageous thought in modern times when anything goes and nothing is left to the imagination.

Indeed, beyond the stupendous one-liners and nutty physical humour—of which Leo McCarey’s film has spades—are moments of pure unspoken genius. In line with the great screwball comedies, no one comes within cooee of mentioning sex in The Awful Truth, even during its best and final scene, where its protagonists are practically begging for it. Mere hours away from an official divorce, a misbehaving couple (played by Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), who’ve spent the better part of the film kidding themselves that they could marry other people, end up in adjoining bedrooms. A shonky door separating the rooms ensures that the soon-to-be-annulled husband and wife remain simultaneously awake and side-by-side (a staging that foreshadows the ingenious, censor-circumventing use of split-screen ‘pillow talk’ in Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet (1958), also starring Cary Grant), and although they fuss over the arrangement, the situation is far from accidental: Grant has kept his window open so the draught dislodges the door at will; Dunne, having maneuvered Grant all the way to her country cabin, has slipped into a revealing negligee, content to wriggle seductively under the covers every time he falls into her line of sight. There’s a wonderfully knotty exchange between the stubborn lovers as they dance around the ‘truth’ behind their predicament (as in, the redundancy of their mutual mistrust), but the real exclamation mark is saved for, of all things, a cuckoo clock. If comedy is largely considered an actor’s and writer’s medium—and this sequence is a superb illustration of that truism—McCarey has something else to add to the equation. His imaginative visual gag (involving the clock’s automatons) not only gets Grant and Dunne in bed together; it teasingly prolongs, and then climaxes one of the most titillating scenes between and man and a woman of any era.

Grant and Dunne’s tête-à-tête isn’t as brazenly sexual as Barbara Stanwyck’s seduction of Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (1941)—she practically goes down on his foot, and it’s pretty much the sexiest thing ever put to film—but it’s certainly as memorable, if not emblematic of the bold sexuality and female agency present in the best screwball comedies. It’s also a shame that Irene Dunne—perhaps better known as a melodramatist, such as opposite Grant in the damp tragi-romance Penny Serenade (1941)—is less recognised as a gifted comedienne alongside Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, and Barbara Stanwyck, because in The Awful Truth, she offers a sly and deliberately gestural performance in contrast to the alternatively manic, sweet-centred, silver tongued, bulldozing style of her peers. Defined by mischievous glances, flirtatious eyebrow movement, and a tendency to deflate her lines out the corner of her mouth, Dunne works her kittenish sensibility, and as the stakes get higher, she takes the quintessential screwball ruse—the false identity—within an inch of its life. As a film about marriage through divorce, The Awful Truth is especially fun as a game of one-upmanship, and affords both its protagonists a fair chance to play the charade or sabotage each other’s romantic pretenses. Grant, who would go on to be putty in the hands of Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), is much less of a lackey here (he doesn’t have to cross dress, for starters), and is distinctly physical as a performer—quite the reversal from the rapid-fire repartee he would help make famous in His Girl Friday (1940), also for the genre’s outstanding exponent, Howard Hawks.

Aside from Grant’s indispensability (The Awful Truth cemented him as a comedy sophisticate) and Dunne’s surprising comedic spunk, McCarey utilities fantastic character actors—I particularly like Cecil Cunningham as Dunne’s wiseacre Aunt Patsy, who gets to deliver the film’s superlative punch line, “Here’s your diploma!”—and for guaranteed laughs, the decade’s ubiquitous canine star, The Thin Man’s Wire Fox Terrier ‘Asta’ (aka Mr. Smith, aka George, aka. Mr. Atlas). The casting of the dog is no cheap trick, and McCarey incorporates the showbiz animal into the narrative with ingenuity: firstly, as the ‘surrogate child’ of the divorcing couple who are made to fight over custody in court (the scenario imagines, in a roundabout way, what would happen if William Powell and Myrna Loy, aka Nick and Nora, separated); and secondly, as a third point of interaction in what would otherwise be static two-handed scenes between Grant and Dunne. Of course, the dog’s crowning moment comes courtesy of a game of hide and seek with his doting ‘parents’, which instigates the chaos within a brilliantly choreographed farce mid-way through the film.

Incidentally, McCarey would try to replicate the success of The Awful Truth as writer and producer of My Favorite Wife (1940), a variation on the remarriage theme with Irene Dunne, presumed dead, returning from seven years on a desert island to wheedle her way back into her ex-husband Cary Grant’s life.[1] Just like The Awful Truth, Dunne pretends to be Grant’s sister to get under the skin of his new wife, and makes him squirm as she toys with another man. The film even ends with a sleepless Grant trading one bedroom for another: Dunne’s. Given screwball comedies are, by default, also romantic comedies, one could argue that, in terms of romantic resolution, things haven’t changed for the better. In actuality, they’ve regressed. The difference back then was that the male lead seldom got the girl. In the end, as in The Lady Eve and Bringing Up Baby, the genre’s two finest gender-bending specimens, the girl got them. If The Awful Truth is unfair to Dunne’s character insofar as it holds the suspicion of her unfaithfulness up to closer scrutiny while dismissing Grant’s own indiscretion (never mind that he lies about travelling to Florida and is never asked to explain why—a perfectly legitimate reason for their marriage breakup), it at least empowers her to take him back on her own terms. By the time we’ve seen her come hither look, sex is well and truly in the air, and there’s no mistaking who’s on top.

Film Societies in sixteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at filmsocietywellington.net.nz, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.

[1] A car accident in 1939 confined McCarey to the producer’s role on My Favorite Wife. He directed The Awful Truth for Columbia after making his greatest film, My Way For Tomorrow—released the same year, but a commercial failure.

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.