Leo McCarey won the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on his 1937 film, The Awful Truth. McCarey had also directed the masterful Make Way for Tomorrow that year. When he got up to accept his prize, he said, “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” McCarey believed — always — that Make Way for Tomorrow was his best film. And he may be right; that film is a masterpiece that tugs at your heart with genuine pathos: it’s beautiful. But . . . I’m with the Academy. The Awful Truth is a landmark directing achievement, and today The Criterion Collection has released it in a wonderful home video edition, that I highly recommend.
Before making The Awful Truth with McCarey, Cary Grant was a bit of a mess of untapped potential. He’d appeared in a number of films, much like many other actors who aren’t remembered. That could have been his fate. He often looked stilted or ill at ease in his earliest films (one of these early films, Blonde Venus, where he plays the boring man is coming soon from Criterion, in their gorgeous boxset Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, coming in July). None of Grant’s physicality and comic timing was coming out in his screen presence. McCarey saw his potential, though, particularly given Grant’s past experience in vaudeville where he was a skilled acrobat and mime.
McCarey pushed Grant way out of his comfort zone for this film; indeed, Grant was so uncomfortable he first wanted to change roles with the side character played perfectly by Ralph Bellamy. When that wasn’t on the table, he offered to buy himself out of the contract. Throughout all of this, McCarey persisted and directed Cary Grant into the Cary Grant we have come to love: the light-hearted, debonair, comforting, comic Hollywood leading man. Benjamin Schwarz wrote in The Atlantic that The Awful Truth started “the most spectacular run ever for an actor in American pictures,” referring, naturally to Grant. McCarey deserves heaps of awards for his massive effort in directing Grant to deliver this landmark performance that launched a landmark career.
The movie is great, too — one of my favorites. The Awful Truth is a classic screwball comedy of divorce and remarriage, starring Cary Grant as Jerry Warriner and Irene Dunne as Lucy Warriner. When the film begins Jerry is returning from Florida . . . at least, that’s the story he’s going to tell Lucy. When we first see him, he’s actually getting a fake tan and buying some California oranges to hide the fact that he’s been, well, somewhere else. Presumably with someone else.
When he does get home he’s a bit shocked to find that his wife isn’t there to receive him and their guests. Presently, she walks in, a bit sheepishly, with another man, her handsome music teacher Armand (played by Alexander D’Arcy). They claim Armand’s car broke down the night before so they were forced to spend the night together in the country.
It’s clear that Jerry doesn’t believe them.
And so they mutually agree to divorce. Only, in the 1930s to get a divorce meant jumping some hurdles, including a 60-day waiting period. They separate and wait for the date their divorce is official.
In the meantime, Lucy meets an oil man from Oklahoma named Dan Leeson, played by Ralph Bellamy (this is the role Grant tried to swipe for). They hit it off, but Jerry and Lucy aren’t officially divorced, so Jerry shows up once in a while:
Leeson: Glad to know you.
Jerry: Well, how can you be glad to know me? I know how I’d feel if I was sitting with a girl and her husband walked in.
Lucy: I’ll bet you do.
Leeson and Lucy have hit it off so well they’re already talking about marriage and living in Oklahoma City (“Not Oklahoma City itself!” exclaims Jerry). It’s all wonderfully awkward.
This leads to one of the best scenes in the film, the one where we see Cary Grant become Cary Grant. Sure, up to now he’s been great as Jerry, but this just seems to encapsulate it.
Leeson takes Lucy out on to the floor to dance. At least, that’s what he’d call it.
Jerry, who’s sitting at the table contemplating his wife’s upcoming marriage a bit soberly, looks up and sees the show going on on the floor.
Rather than sit behind the table, he moves his chair front and center and watches them with complete glee. This is Cary Grant.
It’s a remarkable scene, one I think of all the time. But it’s not just Jerry who can be amused at his spouse’s foibles in this interlude between marriage and divorce. This is Lucy in another glorious moment from the film, where she sings and can’t help but chuckle as Jerry makes a fool of himself somewhere else in the room.
See, as great as Cary Grant is, and as much as this film launched his persona, Irene Dunne matches him step for step. She’s fantastic and has so many of her own wonderful moments.
So, what won’t these two do to each other? And eventually we see that they are not so much doing it to each other as for each other. We know where this show is going, even if they don’t, and it’s a wonderful trip.
I’ll leave you with this fun dialogue:
Lucy: Yes, it’s funny that everything’s the way it is on account of the way you feel.
Lucy: Well, what I mean is, if you didn’t feel the way you do, things wouldn’t be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different.
Jerry: But things are the way you made them.
Lucy: Oh, no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn’t make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you’re the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.