Classic Corner: The Awful Truth

The essence of that singular and ephemeral sub-genre we know today as screwball comedy is pretty much summed up by a line of dialogue from one of the most treasured movies of the type, Bringing Up Baby (1938): “All that happened happened because I was trying to keep you near me. I just did anything that came into my head.”

Madcap, frenetic, bordering on the surreal, screwball comedies revolve around the ardent, relentless pursuit of romance against all good sense and logic. Unlike standard romances taking place among beautiful people in a sane and civilized world, screwball features popular screen stars often working against their familiar charm and sophistication, exhibiting the most absurd behavior to gain each others’ attention and affection. They take pratfalls, cook up elaborately bonkers schemes, engage in deceit and sabotage, and generally make fools of themselves in the name of love or, more accurately, sex. Screwball comedy could only have emerged in a Hollywood governed by the Production Code. Flourishing roughly between the early 1930s and the mid-1940s, the genre thrives on the tension caused by the highly charged sexual desires of the characters at a time when sexuality on screen was heavily censored.

The Awful Truth (1937) wasn’t the first screwball comedy; that credit most often goes to It Happened One Night (1934) and Twentieth Century (1934), although an argument can be made for some earlier films. It is, however, considered one of the very best, if only for the sheer pleasure of watching two likable performers at their comic peak, surrounded by the lush opulence typical of the decade’s art direction.

It’s also the best example of that highly specialized sub-sub-genre, the comedy of remarriage. When screwball wasn’t getting laughs from a fervent pursuer (usually a woman) hell bent on nabbing the object of her desire, it was about two people who were/are/should still be together reuniting in the wildest, most circuitous way. In The Awful Truth, married couple Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, in the first of three films together) are trying their damnedest to get divorced even when it’s obvious they can’t live without each other. And, yes, they do anything that comes into their heads, taking turns either trying to win one another back or screwing up their chances with anyone else.

The script has its abundance of witty dialogue and clever innuendo (In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to what he’s been thinking about all winter), but it’s the physical comedy that tips this over into screwball. A great deal of humor derives from the incongruity of elegantly dressed, sophisticated New Yorkers engaged in slapstick bits: Lucy’s excruciatingly ridiculous dance with her Oklahoma beau; Jerry tickling her from behind a door while her suitor reads her a love poem; Jerry’s tussle with a houseboy and his pratfalls during Lucy’s vocal recital; and most famously, Lucy repeatedly trying to keep Jerry from discovering another man’s hat while the couple’s dog retrieves it from any hiding place she puts it.

Much of what makes that physical comedy work can be credited to producer-director Leo McCarey. Today, he’s largely remembered for the sentimental musical comedy-drama Going My Way (1944) and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), as well as the tender, weepy Love Affair (1939) and its remake An Affair to Remember (1957), but his roots were in silent comedy. He supervised hundreds of productions at the Hal Roach Studios, and it has been widely acknowledged that it was McCarey who first teamed Laurel and Hardy. He also honed his comic chops on pictures for the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, 1933) and Mae West (Belle of the Nineties, 1934).

He found a valuable collaborator in Cary Grant, who up to this point had largely been cast in roles that required him to be little more than handsome and charming in swanky clothes. McCarey tapped into Grant’s background as an acrobat and vaudeville performer and discovered a hint of bumbling insecurity under the suave, confident veneer. The two men bore some physical resemblance, and Grant, once he fell into the groove of McCarey’s improvisational style, found it easy to incorporate the director’s inflections and facial expressions into his performance.

From our perspective seeing so much of Grant over so many years, his work here may not seem especially revelatory. But check out his earlier performances in something like Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) or Blonde Venus (1932), then observe him in this film–not just the showier comic bits, but the way he looks at and listens to the other characters, the confusion, bemusement, embarrassment, and tenderness that come across with no words at all. The Awful Truth indelibly defined the unmistakable blend of sophistication, agitation, and deft physicality that would be Grant’s trademark for the rest of his long career. It’s the movie that “invented” Cary Grant.

“The Awful Truth” is streaming as part of Criterion Channel’s July 2024 focus on “Columbia Screwball.”

Rob Nixon is a visual artist and writer. His plays have been produced throughout the U.S., and he has contributed content on a range of subjects to a number of publications and websites. He has written on film history and analysis for Senses of Cinema, Turner Classic Movies, and others.

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