Bright Lights Film Journal

“If I were different, maybe things could be the same, only different.” Leo McCarey’s Screwball Classic <em>The Awful Truth</em> on DVD

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne live our dreams

Wouldn’t it be nice if life consisted entirely of silk dressing gowns, champagne, and silver cocktail shakers? Wouldn’t it be nice if you and your beloved could make the most profound confessions of love in light airy banter that seemed to say nothing and yet meant everything? And — while we’re at it — wouldn’t it be nice to look like Cary Grant?

Well, yes, it would be nice, but even Cary himself couldn’t manage that hat trick. Cary had the looks, of course, and the dressing gown, but the effortless emotional intimacy — well, two out of three isn’t bad, is it?

Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) allowed Cary Grant to be Cary Grant. Cary had been there all the time, of course, but somehow Leo released him, that perfect, golden man, impossibly gorgeous, with aplomb up the wazoo, aplomb up the kazoo, the man with aplomb where aplomb never grew before — the king of screwball comedy.

Screwball comedy was hardly new in 1937. Arthur Richman wrote The Awful Truth as a Broadway play back in 1921, and it had been filmed twice as a silent.1 Ernst Lubitsch had been making hay from marital contretemps for decades.2 But until films like The Thin Man and It Happened One Night arrived in 1934, most Hollywood comedies starred people who looked funny. When Eddie Cantor, or Jimmy Durante, or Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey3 walked on the screen, you knew you were supposed to laugh. They were clowns.

Leo McCarey (right), a tough Irish kid who’d been a boxer as a young man,4 knew from clowns. He had directed Laurel and Hardy in classic shorts like Liberty and Big Business; he’d directed the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup; Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way; and W. C. Fields in Six of a Kind. He knew how to get laughs from funny-looking people who said and did funny things. Remarkably, he proved to be the master of screwball comedy as well — getting laughs from impossibly elegant-looking people who said and did funny things.5

The Awful Truth is the tale of Lucy and Jerry Warriner, two of Park Avenue’s finest, but just a bit too sure of themselves, a little too proud and a little too unwilling to back down. When Jerry comes home from two weeks in not-Florida and finds Lucy returning from an impromptu overnight with vocal coach Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy6), the static electricity accumulates so rapidly that no form of discharge short of a divorce will do. Waiting for the divorce decree to become final, each pines for the other, but neither will admit it. Fortunately, they’re sharing custody of Mr. Smith, a wire-haired terrier.7 When Jerry arrives for a visit he interrupts Lucy in the midst of a tête-à-tête with gentleman caller Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy). Dan’s brand of Oklahoma crude can get a bit rank, but Lucy notices that Jerry doesn’t cotton to Dan buzzing around her hive, so she lets nature take its course. Jerry manages to send Dan back to Tulsa, with a little help from Lucy’s Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham), but unfortunately he picks up fresh evidence, so he thinks, of Lucy’s involvement with Armand, so he gets himself engaged to “millions of dollars and no sense” heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). Naturally, Lucy breaks that up and, in a bravura display of feminine ingenuity and charm, finally gets Jerry to say what he should have said in the first place, and all is forgiven. Amor vincit omnia, as the saying goes, and that is as it should be.8

The Awful Truth has a fascinating balance. All of the major characters have their own strengths and weaknesses. No one is allowed to get too far ahead of the others. Cary Grant’s wonderful advantage is that he is Cary Grant. He’s perfect. How can you be Cary Grant and have problems? So McCarey makes sure that he does have problems. Who can resist laughing when a piano lid slams on the hand of a god, or when his score off the wife girlfriend turns out to be a bit of a floozy?9 It’s like Zeus struggling to swat a mosquito.

Irene Dunne is at a bit of a disadvantage. For one thing, she was thirty-seven when she made The Awful Truth, while Cary was only thirty-three. When you’re in a picture with Cary Grant, it’s a lot nicer to be four years younger than four years older. And there are times when a thin, wrinkled line of flesh forms around her jaw line that, one suspects, she would have given ten percent of her salary to lose.

Remarkably, Dunne holds her own, thanks to an excellent script and her own acting. I found her deliciously condescending two years earlier in Roberta, but here she’s lightened herself. Classy, yes, very, but not condescending, and very light on her feet. She’s always one step ahead of Jerry, a tantalizing gadfly that never lets him relax into his godlike perfection. As soon as he’s extinguished one brushfire, she’s started another. She’s thirty-seven acting twenty-seven, and somehow she pulls it off.

Ralph Bellamy gives us a very nice ride as Dan Leeson, the interloping cowpoke boyfriend from Tulsa. Yes, he’s corn-fed and lives with his ma, but he sure knows how to fill out a top coat, doesn’t he? It’s a very nice touch to make Dan so open and good-natured, laughing with naïve delight at the slightest witticism. “Hey, that’s funny! You know, you’re funny!” How can you get mad at someone who laughs at your jokes? If you didn’t want him to laugh, why did you tell a joke in the first place?

In addition to fine performances from the leads, The Awful Truth shines for its beautiful mingling of verbal, character-driven humor and superbly paced slapstick. The tale of the hats, the fatal mix-up involving Jerry’s and Armand’s derbies, is probably the most elegant hat-play on film, Stan and Ollie gone uptown. McCarey almost seems to be working on a dare — taking the lowest piece of vaudeville shtick, putting it on Park Avenue, and making it work.10 Nothing is forced; each step in the farce is quite reasonable and sensible on its own — little bits of paper floating randomly together to form a picture of disaster.

There’s a bit of a sag when Dan and ma head back to Tulsa, and we have to sit through a montage of thirties high-life as Jerry woos heiress Barbara, but then we’re off to the races once more as it’s Lucy’s turn to play anti-Cupid. It seems to be a common fantasy of women to pretend to be, um, “common,” and as Jerry’s “vulgar” sister Dunne takes this fantasy to the limit.11) Surprisingly, the long follow-up, which has them careening around the countryside, first in Lucy’s Caddy and then via motorcycle, on route to Aunt Patsy’s place in the country, never loses its momentum. The final scenes — the recalcitrant door, Dunne’s arch, and arched-back, “good-nights” — are the absolute high point of thirties big-screen, black and white sophistication.

There’s surprising backstory to The Awful Truth. According to Eliot March’s new biography of Grant, Cary hated McCarey’s improvisatory approach to film-making and aggressively sought to be taken off the picture. He had no idea that McCarey was helping him create one of the great screen personas of all time. Grant was stunned by the success of the picture and it gave him no real sense of accomplishment. McCarey, in turn, resented all the praise of Grant’s “fabulous” performance. Even when he won the Oscar for best director, McCarey sulkily told the crowd that they gave him the award for the “wrong” picture. He felt he deserved it for Make Way for Tomorrow (1936), a film about “real people.”

But Wait, There’s More

Many people prefer Bringing Up Baby, which Cary made a year later with Katherine Hepburn. Kate and Cary are the classiest Hollywood couple ever, but Bringing Up Baby is a more mechanical farce. It’s a tribute to both director Howard Hawks and the cast that the frequent “Will everyone please stop shouting?” scenes are always funny, but the pace of the film never lets the characters breathe the way they do in The Awful Truth.12 A year later Cary made a third classic, with a third actress, Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday, again directed by Hawks. Cary, Ros, and Howard rework Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s wonderful play until it seems that Hildy Johnson should have been a woman all along.13 Dunne and Cary had a rematch in His Favorite Wife, also in 1939, which is funny in parts but, unsurprisingly, doesn’t quite match the original.

People don’t talk much about Holiday, the other 1938 Kate and Cary, for the very good reason that it’s lousy. Holiday was based on a play by Philip Barry, adapted for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart, the same combo that produced the far more famous Philadelphia Story. For my money, The Philadelphia Story is a dreadful film — all the speed and irresponsibility of the classic screwball farces has turned to stone.14)

Screwball comedy barely made it through the forties — heiresses and the idle rich were seriously out of date. Instead of admiring their betters, Americans were beginning to look down on them. A man who didn’t have to work, well, he was hardly a man at all, was he? Preston Sturges revamped and revitalized the genre, but Preston was always just a little too pleased with his own genius for my taste and ended up falling victim to the Park Avenue lifestyle in real life. The Thin Man series, which helped start the ball rolling, showed surprising strength, maintaining its “don’t touch the corpse where’s my martini?” ambience for more than a decade, finally running out of gas with the disappointing Song of the Thin Man in 1947. And in 1949, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy provided a final classic, Adam’s Rib.

The demise of the screwball comedy left poor Cary with no place to go, except the occasional Hitchcock thriller. Style and class were out. The regular guy was in, and Cary Grant, obviously, was no regular guy. The mass audience wanted to see itself on the screen, not some dude who knew more about salad forks than changing the oil on a `55 Chevy.

But the economic expansion over the past generation has led to a remarkable recrudescence in upper-middle-class entertainment, both in film — Amadeus and Shakespeare in Love, for example — and television — Hill Street Blues and The West Wing. At the present time, the safest harbor for upper-crust eyeballs seems to be premium cable. There are enough folks with BMW pocketbooks and BMW sensibilities to create a market for shows that idealize the life of the well-heeled and reckless, a la Sex and the City. It’s true that we aren’t quite as feckless as we were in the nineties, but the money’s still there, at least enough of it to pay the bills.15 HBO and Showtime let media types make the sort of entertainment they want to see, instead of having to program for the folks back in Peoria. And if the Jewish scriptwriters at HBO ever get tired of pretending to be Italian mobsters, we just might get a little screwball again. Waiter! Another round of water-cress sandwiches, s’il vous plait!


With the irritating exception of Bringing Up Baby, nearly all of the films mentioned in this article are available on DVD.16 His Girl Friday is available in both cheap and restored versions. There’s a nice bio of Leo McCarey by Paul Herrill Senses of Cinema. There’s a nice “Screwball Comedy” page here. There’s a nice Cary Grant page here and a nice site for Irene Dunne here.

  1. It would be filmed a fourth time as Let’s Do It Again in 1954 with Jane Wyman and Ray Milland. []
  2. See Alan Jacobson’s nice take on The Marriage Circle (1924). []
  3. David Boxwell’s magisterial “Wheeler and Woolsey Queered” more than repairs the damage done by my snide remarks in “Where’s the rest of him?” []
  4. McCary’s biography sounds like a John Ford film. No wonder he directed both Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. He probably thought he was doing social realism! While both films feature unlimited kitsch, The Bells of St. Mary’s has perhaps the ultimate Hollywood moment: Ingrid Bergman as a nun teaching an Irish orphan how to box. Pour it on! Pour it on! Who needs reality? It just gets in the way! []
  5. Screenwriter Viña Delmar, who had worked with McCarey on Make Way for Tomorrow, surely merits a nod as well. Delmar, a serious jack of all trades with a typewriter, also wrote short stories, plays, and novels that were turned into films, although none of her other projects, one must say, comes close to the heights of The Awful Truth. []
  6. D’Arcy’s buttery good looks won him repeated roles as both gigolo and headwaiter. However, he never appears to be quite as harmless as the picture implies, unless we assume that he’s actually been castrated. []
  7. Supposedly, the same dog played “Asta” in the long-running Thin Man series, if you can believe Tinsel Town sentimentalists like Pauline Kael. But surely a dozen dogs were involved. []
  8. Jerry’s little non-Florida excursion simply gets lost in the shuffle. Apparently, if you’re a guy it’s OK to slip away for an occasional two weeks of anonymous screwing, as long as you don’t get caught. []
  9. A nice floozy, to be sure. Joyce Compton played hat check girl types in close to 150 films, starting out in such too twenties flicks as Ankles Preferred and Dangerous Curves. []
  10. The whole routine is set up in an earlier scene when Jerry arrives sporting a borsalino, which he grandly presents to Lucy as though she were a servant. []
  11. Jane magazine frequently runs “slut for a day” articles, e.g., a no-nonsense reporter puts on a push-up bra, false eyelashes, a tight skirt, spike heels, yada, yada, yada, to see if bartenders will give her free drinks as dude bait. It works! But, of course, that’s not really her. After one wild night on the town, she races home to her adorable boyfriend, who loves her for her prose. (Uh-huh. So why does he reach for the Crisco every time you try to read him your piece on post-modern gender identity in contemporary film? []
  12. In addition, Kate is stuck with a lot of lines that seem to come from Gracie Allen’s reject pile:
    Cary: Susan, you’ve got to get out of this apartment!
    Kate: I can’t! I’ve got a five-year lease! []
  13. Scriptwriter Charles Lederer should probably get a little credit too. But both Hawks and Lederer should have had the sense to drop the racist subplot about the “colored policeman.” []
  14. It’s hard to decide which is worse, the solemnity or the snobbery, but the bit about “yar” wins by a nose. (If you don’t know what “yar” means, well, you probably didn’t inherit your grandfather’s summer home in Bar Harbor, did you? []
  15. And if the generous folks at the Bush Administration manage to do away with that nasty “death tax,” we’ll have a lot more idle rich on our hands. One can imagine W’s heartfelt complaint: “All those years I wasted pretending to have a job, when I could have been enjoying myself! It was so wrong!” []
  16. Only the original Thin Man is currently on disc. []