Genre: Screwball Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.
Release Date: October 21st, 1937 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Leo McCarey Actors: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D’Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont, Esther Dale, Joyce Compton, Robert Allen
s the clock strikes eight at the Gotham Athletic Club, Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) rushes to get a quick tan, wanting to complete the look of someone who just got back from two weeks in Florida. He wasn’t in Florida, but needs to keep up the ruse, in the event that his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne, who gets top billing, since she headlined more pictures than her costar at the time) has friends who might question his conspicuous whiteness. But Lucy, who is supposed to be at her Aunt Patsy’s (Cecil Cunningham, who lands some of the best jabs) cabin, was in fact with Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy) – a rather handsome vocal coach and convenient courier for the prior evening.
“Can’t have a happily married life if you’re always gonna be suspicious of each other,” insists Lucy, as she babbles a few too many details about private matters, much to the amusement of the Warriners’ guests. She claims that all of Armand’s actions were perfectly innocent, but the gossipy explanations are too much for Jerry to digest. This, of course, ends when Lucy discovers a stamp from California on one of the oranges given to her in a gift basket from Jerry’s Florida trip. And so, with their faith in one another all but shattered, they settle on filing for divorce (a somewhat agreeable occasion, save for the custody of Mr. Smith, the dog – the very same Asta from the “Thin Man” movies).
Life isn’t terribly exciting for single people, or so the Warriners’ immediate separation would insinuate. But that’s just the start, as the former couple adopt the notion that if they can’t be together (though they’re certain they don’t want to be together), no one else should be with them either. And so they plot to disrupt each other’s romantic endeavors at every turn (including conquests of Oklahoma rancher Daniel Leeson [Ralph Bellamy] and southern singer and dumbbell Dixie Belle Lee [Joyce Compton]), even if the ultimate prize is mere spouselessness.
“The Awful Truth” isn’t so much a comedy of manners (though the participants are wealthy socialites) as it is a battle of the sexes, with rebound relationships for spite and jealousy, sexual innuendo, chance encounters for awkward competition, and heaps of sarcastic conversations to rival the comedic works of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. It’s populated with scene after scene of absolutely hysterical rivalry and contrasts, including an upbeat dance number with an encore (itself something of a duel); the crashing (sometimes literally) of a recital; a phone call with a divorce lawyer who is rudely interrupted by his wife as he tries to explain the magical, beautiful thing that is marriage; and one after another of run-ins with competing suitors attempting to conceal their untimely presences (the “two-men-in-the-bedroom-farce” is one of the best). With such expert pacing and timing, there’s never a dull moment.
At times, the embarrassment is palpable; thinly veiled (or not at all) insults are slung left and right without hesitation; and the destruction of reputations is an uproarious undertaking. It’s so outrageously funny that the bitterness never sets in, marking this as one of the most lighthearted bouts of mudslinging in screwball comedy history. There’s also plenty of slapstick and mishaps as the two combatants fight ceaselessly to ensure that they’re never apart for too long, even as they pretend to be miserable together. The film is sweet (but never sickly so), continuously humorous, smartly balanced in its realism and fantasy-oriented romanticism (save for the final act – something akin to “The Lady Eve” – which is greatly farfetched but perfectly calamitous), and self-reflexive in a couple of key moments (a sure sign of clever scripting). Plus, in the way that nearly all comedies of the ’30s worked, everything wraps up nicely. “You’re all confused, aren’t you?”
– Mike Massie