Criterion Catch-Up: The Awful Truth (1937)

the awful truth criterion

Watching Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth I was brought back to those weekends with my dad. He passed down to me my love for Cary Grant, watching films like Father Goose and Mr. Lucky and North By Northwest. We had nothing else in common, so I clung to those stars and movies and absorbed them like a sponge, hunting them out so I could ask my dad if he had seen them and – if not – find a small pocket of love in the 90 or so minutes it took to watch one. So the “why” of purchasing The Awful Truth was never in question: I love this era of filmmaking, not only for the nostalgia factor of remembering the times with my father before alcohol and eventually death took him away, but for the small observations and joys you find on your own when you engage in something long enough.

McCarey was already a comedy directing legend, having directed the Marx Bros. in Duck Soup, but his eye and ear for razor sharp dialog and physical gags is even more finely tuned in The Awful Truth. This is also the film that solidified the Cary Grant that I would come to love in practically everything else he ever did in his career. Earlier in 1937 he broke out in the supernatural comedy Topper, but it’s here that we see the combination of wit, grace, and physicality that would serve him throughout the decades. More than assisting in the transformation is Irene Dunne, who has top billing for a reason. Further making everything work is Skippy the Dog as Mr. Smith. If you need more persuasion of the film’s merits, I will mention that only is the dog’s name in the film Mr. Smith, but is also the same dog from The Thin Man series. And if you haven’t seen The Thin Man, rectify that immediately.

The plot is pretty straightforward for a screwball comedy: Grant and Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a well to-do married couple who owing to a misunderstanding over Lucy’s adventure having to spend the night with her handsome vocal coach decide to divorce (Grant seems in the right, except he just came back from a week at his Sports Club, lying about a business trip to Florida). The divorce is granted pending a 90-day waiting period, and in that time both Jerry and Lucy attempt to move on to disastrous results, finding out that the two are made for each other.

Straightforward as it seems, it’s all in the execution, and this is where McCarey and his screenwriter Viña Delmar – working off the 1923 play of the same name – excel. Supposedly there was a lot of improvisation on the set which rankled Grant, but you can’t argue with the results, which are wonderfully absurd, sexy, and twisted in a way that plays very modern. I can’t think of another film earlier than this that has a jujitsu gag, and there is a pratfall Grant does that borders on the sublime. It might be easy to forget looking at his later films what a gifted physical performer Grant was, but in films like this and Bringing Up Baby shot a year later you can see the way his Vaudeville and acrobatic training helped to define his persona.

I spoke earlier about how nothing a film like this doesn’t work unless all performers are in sync, and in Irene Dunne Grant has a perfect foil. As the film plays on Lucy becomes more and more unhinged, realizing Jerry is the one for her and going to ridiculous lengths to get out of her own engagement to the hilariously bumbling Ralph Bellamy (again – perfect foil for the pair) as well as ruin Grant’s chances with the young heiress he’s going to marry. Once you see her completely own a pair of police officers you realize just how much she brings to the comedy.

Again, I’m not looking to have these work as full reviews…I’m going to try again to see if I can tighten these up and give you a taste as to why I bought these films and how they work on me. The Awful Truth feels almost like a cheat: I was raised on films like this so never worried about not loving it. Let’s see what happens when I pick a film that isn’t a guarantee – then I bet we’ll see that format starting to take shape.

Anyway, see this movie. It’s a madcap delight and will if nothing else present you the image of a dog playing hide and seek.

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