Pretty much everything about The Awful Truth is wonderful. If It Happened One Night is usually credited as the first screwball comedy, it was The Awful Truth that perfected the form. It’s almost impossibly fast and light on its feet and the most romantic movie about divorce imaginable. It tells the story of Jerry and Lucy Warrener, a fun-loving high-society couple who have grown restless in their formerly happy marriage. After a heated argument they decide to separate, but though they both try to move on with other partners, events keep conspiring to draw them back together. Is it possible that they might be suited to each other after all?
The Warreners are played by Irene Dunne and Cary Grant and they are both at the very top of their games. Indeed, in Grant’s case there is a strong case – which is convincingly made in the disk’s bonus features – that The Awful Truth is where he invented his game; it was in this film that he finally drew together all of the disparate bits of his persona and became one of the great movie stars. Dunne, of course, was already the finished article. She plays Lucy as razor sharp, if slightly scatterbrained. She tumbles into situations always hoping for the best, even as she quickly perceives that her hopes are unlikely to be realized. At the beginning she seems sincerely thrilled when Jerry tells her he can explain everything, but the smile is gone long before the explanation concludes. Fittingly, Grant plays Jerry as her complimentary opposite: he enters every scene sure of his success, only to finds his control and composure gradually ebbing away. Together, one Warrener is always in command, while the other is at sea.
Regardless of who has the upperhand, neither completely loses their sense of humour. It is a rare treat to see convincingly intelligent people make fools of themselves while retaining the ability to laugh at their own absurdity. This quality is made all the more apparent by its total absence in their subsequent partners. Lucy rebounds into galumphing, ingenuous oil tycoon Tom, so brilliantly played by Ralph Bellamy that Howard Hawks got him do the same act again opposite Grant in His Girl Friday. Jerry has two attempts: first a nightclub singer with an eye-catching novelty act (Joyce Compton), then a haughty heiress (Molly Lamont). None of these relationships really stand a chance once Lucy and Jerry have caught each other’s sideways mocking glances.
It is a film filled with big pratfalls and sly detail, and it all seems effortless under the direction of Leo McCarey (for which he won an Oscar). By this point he had worked with an astonishing range of comedy stars including Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Eddie Cantor and the Marx Brothers. Occasionally, you can catch bits of comedian-style business in The Awful Truth – a mix up involving bowler hats is straight out of Laurel and Hardy, and a final scene where Jerry and Lucy ‘mirror’ each other in a doorway is reminiscent of Duck Soup (which McCarey also directed) – but none of it seems forced or superfluous. It is sophisticated, silly entertainment of the very highest quality. There’s even a brilliant performing dog.
This is another great Criterion effort. The picture is bright and consistent with little visible damage. Image detail is far, far better than the old Sony DVD, although given the film’s age grain is heavy throughout. The sound is of a similarly high standard. The special features are not numerous, but offer a good overview of the production. There is a short (7 minute) audio interview with Irene Dunne from 1978, where she talks modestly about her role in the film and praises McCarey. McCarey is also front and centre in two newly produced featurettes. In a 24 minute interview, critic Gary Giddins provides an excellent introduction to the director’s career up to The Awful Truth. In a 16 minute ‘video essay’ that features some very smart editing of archival clips, David Cairns demonstrates how important McCarey was to bringing out the best of Cary Grant. Finally, a 60-minute radio adaptation of the film for Lux Radio Theatre is included from 1939. Grant reprises his role, but Dunne is replaced by Claudette Colbert.
Review by Jim Whalley