The Awful Truth (1937)

Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth zips by at such a frenetic clip that the limpid beauty of its ending almost seems out of place. After an hour and a half of screwball anarchy, the movie slows down as the story’s bickering couple find themselves alone, their divorce to become final within minutes. Still in love with each other (without admitting it, of course), the two engage in a fumbling, delicate dance of reconciliation. Hushed and lovely, the scene is a graceful downshift: madcap hilarity gives way to a subtle, sexy affirmation of married bliss.

It’s certainly giving away nothing to divulge that the leads get together at the end of a romantic comedy. What’s surprising is that their convoluted coupling should be so sweet. Like all great screwball comedies, The Awful Truth works splendidly because the sparkling repartee and goofy games-playing is firmly rooted in something serious: longing makes these people go gaga. What elevates McCarey’s masterpiece — what makes it arguably the greatest of its genre — is its unobtrusive depth of feeling. Never sappy, the movie is at once light on its feet and grounded at heart.

Domestic discord never looked more glamorous: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a high society couple whose marriage is on the brink. Gone for a week to Florida, Jerry returns to find out that his wife has spent the night at an inn with Armand (Alex D’Arcy), her dapper voice teacher. Lucy explains that the overnight stay was the work of a stalled car, but the sanctimonious Jerry will have none of it. His stay on high ground is short-lived, however, as Lucy learns that Jerry was never even in Florida. Soon enough, divorce proceedings are underway.

Much of the movie covers the 60 days before the divorce becomes final. Living separately, Jerry and Lucy still see each other on account of Mr. Smith, their ridiculously well-trained dog and unwitting matchmaker. (The adorable pet brought them together in a meet-cute years earlier). With Mr. Smith in Lucy’s custody, Jerry has to settle for court-scheduled visits.

It’s on one of those visits that Jerry meets Dan, an Oklahoma oilman hot for Lucy. The good-hearted but dimwitted lunk is played by Ralph Bellamy, in the kind of role he practically invented: the square sap waiting to be jilted. Clearly out of his league in the presence of the two exes, Dan’s outsider status is only affirmed when he gives voice to what everyone else knows but keeps mum about: “Are you sure you don’t like that fella?” he asks Lucy, as they storm out of her place after Jerry drops by.

She still does — and the feeling is mutual. Described ironically by Armand as having “a continental mind,” Jerry is in fact insecure about his wife. Having lost her, his irrationality spills over into manic comedy. Playing the fool for Lucy, Jerry’s second courtship is comprised of pratfalls, playacting, and some funny business with a hat. His antics are all the more endearing for the intimacy they suggest — you can see the kook she fell for. Lucy’s laughter at Jerry’s expense is just as laced with familiar affection. (“Oh, Jerry,” she all but sighs.)

With his insinuating delivery and muttered zingers, Grant is… well, Grant. Every line is a cheeky poke; when he finds out that Lucy will be moving to Oklahoma City with Dan, he quips, “If it should get dull, you can always go over to Tulsa for the weekend.” Pauline Kael credits his screwball performances, particularly in The Awful Truth, as the enduring basis for the Cary Grant persona. Sarcastic without being nasty, debonair but not aloof, Grant doesn’t just construct our image of Cary Grant — he creates before us the perfect rom-com lead. That Grant reportedly hated McCarey’s heavily improvisatory approach makes his performance seem that much more wondrous.

Of course, man and wife have their turns playing silly, and Dunne’s moment comes in the second half. Although Kael never could stand her toothy mugging, I can’t think of a more beguiling mix of patrician glamour and lowbrow mischief than Dunne’s game turn. Set to dump Dan and primed for a reconciliation with Jerry — who primly asks her to go on a country drive — Lucy ends up losing both the hick and her husband. On the rebound, Jerry promptly meets and proposes to “madcap heiress” Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont), springing Lucy into action.

As zero hour approaches, the movie’s looseness smoothly gives way to a subtly meticulous design. The last act is filled with rhyming effects that recall earlier moments, suggesting the mutually reflective dispositions of the soon-to-be-divorcees. With a few tricks up her sleeve, Lucy shows up at Jerry’s on the day their divorce becomes official to “celebrate.” Initially jovial, the two turn wistful as their split’s finality dawns on them. If an earlier piece of doggerel by Dan left Lucy tittering (no thanks to Jerry), her recitation of an old romantic toast by Jerry hushes both.

The spell doesn’t last — the phone rings, with a suspicious Barbara interrupting the moment. At the Vances that evening, Jerry pacifies Barbara with a spiel on trust and marriage, a word-for-word repetition of Lucy’s earlier reassurance to a jealous Jerry. As he regales his fiancée’s family with stories of his highborn past, Lucy unexpectedly shows up, pretending to be Jerry’s lush of a sister. Her antics do the trick twice over: they horrify the Vances and remind Jerry of what he’ll be missing with the humorless Barbara. The ruckus prompts a quick exit, as Jerry escorts Lucy home. The belated country drive proves just as adventurous. One car in a ditch later, Jerry is forced to spend the night with Lucy at her aunt’s home, subtly echoing Lucy’s adventure with Armand — the story that started it all.

McCarey’s motif of clocks unexpectedly culminates in an absurd prop in Lucy’s room: a Swiss contraption that, instead of a cuckoo, has figurine lovers coming out of their respective chambers with every chime. In separate beds in adjoining rooms, the couple brace for the final half-hour of their wedded life. Unglamorously decked out in borrowed nightclothes, Jerry and Lucy are the picture of what they now yearn to be again: an old couple. The two are separated by an uncooperative door that won’t stay shut, further underscoring the unspoken.

Jerry’s slapstick fumblings with the door notwithstanding, the final scene takes on a nearly sacred quiet. (The chapel interlude in McCarey’s Love Affair leaps to mind: it’s an unexpectedly meditative moment.) At once restrained and deeply romantic, it manages to be moving without forsaking the film’s screwball spirit. Reconciliation comes in the form of Lucy’s irresistible smile and a seductive “Good night.” Jerry may look as bemused as ever, but a final cut to the chiming clock seals the deal.

A deeply religious Catholic, McCarey no doubt intended the movie’s unabashed seriousness regarding love and marriage. It’s tempting to let The Awful Truth‘s frivolity obscure its earnest undercurrents, but to do so would be selling the filmmakers short. While The Awful Truth‘s chief pleasures come from its inspired farce, its greatness lies in its fervent humanity. Jean Renoir once remarked, “McCarey understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.” Coming from the greatest humanist cinema has produced, that’s no small praise.

Long neglected by audiences and critics, McCarey has experienced something of a revival of late. That he even needs a revival would have once been considered unfathomable. Along with Frank Capra, McCarey ruled Hollywood from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, winning Oscars and making hits with remarkable consistency. (The extent of his domination? His take from his 1944 Best Picture winner Going My Way gave him the highest reported income in America that year.)

When he took home the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, McCarey famously quipped, “You gave it to me for the wrong picture,” referring to his other work from 1937, Make Way for Tomorrow. Acknowledged by many as his masterpiece, the movie has been woefully difficult to track down (I have yet to see it). The Awful Truth‘s DVD release, along with a recent retrospective of McCarey’s work at Lincoln Center in New York, hopefully portends a correction of that omission. For now, we’ll have to do with the “wrong picture” — which is as pleasurable as anything a Hollywood studio and the star system ever produced.