The Awful Truth: Review
The Awful Truth is an exceptionally good Cary Grant and Irene Dunne screwball classic, for which director, Leo McCarey received an Oscar as Best Director of 1937. Made at the height of the by-gone genre’s popularity, the film is a more sophisticated example of the sometimes-silly comedy style expertly executed in the much beloved and greater known Bringing Up Baby.
In this charming bit of fluff set in the realms of sophisticated and wealthy society, the married Grant and Dunne experience one misunderstanding after another leading to a sour parting of the ways. But before their divorce becomes final they both do their best to ruin each other's plans for remarriage; Grant to a haughty socialite, and Dunne to an oil-rich bumpkin played to corny perfection by professional second banana, Ralph Bellamy. The sweetly sappy Bellamy is a delight to watch as he bobs and dodges the couple’s flying barbs. But just as in His Girl Friday, Bellamy fulfills his defining role as the poor schmuck whose fate is to be second choice to Grant’s irresistibly charming rogue.
Although the name Leo McCarey is not a readily recognizable one today McCarey was renowned in his day for having directed 6 actors to Oscar nominations, including Dunne and Bellamy in The Awful Truth. In fact, the director was the first of an elite group of five who have received Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for the same project. McCarey accomplished this feat in 1944 with Going My Way followed immediately by Billy Wilder in ’45 for The Lost Weekend. This did not happen again until ’72 with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, shortly thereafter James L. Brooks did the same in ’83 with Terms of Endearment and the most recent filmmaker to achieve this distinction was Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003.
No doubt, McCarey’s early years spent with the great comedic geniuses of the silent era such as Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, and Laurel & Hardy were instrumental in building the foundations of his comic sensibilities. His career would ultimately span the entire range of American comedy, from the screwball to the romantic (Love Affair also with Dunne). What makes The Awful Truth so exceptional is the unusual approach to the genre. You still have the required ingredient of a high society couple embroiled in a battle of the sexes, but the usual “low” comedy is played with greater nobility than other films of its ilk due in large part to the regal casting of Hollywood’s first true lady, Irene Dunne.
Although Dunne is best remembered for her light comedies and dramatic roles in films like I Remember Mama, director McCarey makes full use of Dunne’s under utilized gift for the more obvious demands of screwball. It’s too bad too, because she is delightfully charming as she out smarts Grant at his own game time and again. Together, Dunne and the master of the double take make a winning and likable couple that one might think are actually involved of screen as well as on. Although this was not the case Dunne’s well-mannered reputation certainly helped Grant’s at a crucial time in his career - just like Astaire and Rogers, but in reverse. His brash and cocky persona softened the edges of her respectability, and her stylish air enhanced the romantic gentleman lying beneath his street-smart surface.
Long before Grant’s familiar image as an older, wiser, and ever-so-sophisticated man in To Catch a Thief or Charade, he was a bold young man from Bristol, often cast as such in a more frivolous time when hijinks and snappy banter were the modes operandi. It is McCarey who is responsible for teaming these two opposites and creating one of the first stepping-stones into Grant’s better known and more glamorous persona of his latter roles. While watching The Awful Truth you really get the sense that these two icons of the Studio era were tremendously enjoying every minute of screen time they shared together. Their camaraderie positively envelops the screen. It’s easy to see why after this initial success Grant and Dunne would be cast together two more times, once in the comedy My Favorite Wife and again in the drama Penny Serenade.
Overall this is a stellar classic that is as fine a film the Golden Age of Hollywood ever produced. You don’t have to know a lot about films to realize that, you just have to sit back and watch it. The Awful Truth is just that kind of film. After you’ve seen it it’s not likely you’re going to have to view it multiple times in order to analyze it, but more likely than not you’re going to want to see it again and again any way.