Wednesday, March 31, 2010

1937 - The Awful Truth

As an actor, it is helpful to understand where the industry sees you. As much as we don't like to be typecast, it is a necessary evil in order for casting directors and agents to know which roles to call you in for. But sometimes, it still comes as a surprise when you see the other actors in the waiting room who are up for the same role. Yesterday, as I waited to audition for a national yogurt ad, I sat across the room from Joey Slotnick (pictured). It's becoming clearer now exactly what my type is.

Next on the 1937 review list is Best Picture nominee...

The Awful Truth
Leo McCarey
Viña Delmar
(based on the play by Arthur Richman)
Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D'Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
1 win, for Best Director

A classic screwball comedy, The Awful Truth pits husband and wife, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Grant & Dunne), against each other. It's that age-old battle that is fought between two people who are clearly meant for each other despite the fact they can't stand being in the same room together. The mistrust begins when Lucy spends an allegedly innocent night with her music teacher (D'Arcy), while Jerry is caught in a lie about where he spent his vacation. And that's all it takes for the two to begin divorce proceedings. But before the divorce is finalised, Lucy sparks up a romance with an oil tycoon (Bellamy), while Jerry hobnobs around with an heiress (Lamont). Each does all they can to sabotage the other's relationship with suitably screwball consequences.

The interesting thing about this genre is that rapid-fire humorous dialogue is only one of many comic devices that is utilised. Good screwball comedies will also contain a smattering of physical comedy and a whole host of situational comedy. The Awful Truth certainly delivers on all these fronts. The repartee is snappy, the pratfalls are silly and the situations are wacky. Top it all off with a heartwarming love story and it's understandable why this picture is often held up as a classic example of its genre.

There's one other class of comedy which, despite being a current trend in TV comedies, was perhaps not that prevalent back in the 1930s. Yet, The Awful Truth embraces the wonders that can manifest from awkward humour. Almost ahead of its time, this film treats us to the subtle embarrassed glances of eyes that don't know where to look during a nightclub singer's shockingly ridiculous act.

Another important element is the chemistry between its stars and, once again, The Awful Truth is not left wanting. For all intents and purposes, Cary Grant's charismatic on-screen persona began with his appearance in this film and it's no wonder he was so successful with it. He's charming, debonair and just cheeky enough to make you forgive him his flaws. Irene Dunne's infectiously cute laugh and playful intelligence are a delightful complement. Together, they bicker with such obvious jealousy that it just made me want to scream at them à la Kramer yelling at Jerry and Elaine (you'll need to scroll through to 3:15 to see the part I'm referencing).

The story is relatively simple and effective. It's a romantic comedy, after all - there's only really one way it can end. There are two main scenarios that play themselves out and they are clearly separated by the linear narrative. First, Jerry thwarts Lucy's plans of marrying again, and then Lucy retaliates in kind. It's almost like two distinct episodes of a sitcom. Not really a flaw, just a fascinating observation.


  1. I usually love these type of comedies, but The Awful Truth somehow never really did anything for me.

  2. It's definitely simple, that's for sure. But I kinda liked it. I guess, though, what I mentioned about it seeming like two episodes of the same story may diminish its cohesiveness.

    So, yeah, I think there are better screwball comedies, but I still like this one, too.

  3. One of the things I like to do when we take on a new Academy year is check to see where the nominated films rank today with the critics. The list I use is compiled by the folks at They Shoot Picture's, Don't They?

    Their 1000 greatest films list is compiled from diverse sources and is regularly updated. You can download a PDF of the list and it includes a handy search function.

    For 1937, as much as I've enjoyed all the nominees, they didn't fare well on TSPDT's current list. Only one of the 10 films made it, and that was The Awful Truth (#322). Personally, if I ever compiled my own 1000 greatest films (which I have no intention of doing) I'm confident that at least 3 of 1937's nominees would make it.

    As far as The Awful Truth goes, it is easy to see why it has held up all these years. Much credit has to go to its stars. Their chemistry and comedic timing is impeccable. Cary Grant is the face of screwball comedy with 5 or 6 other titles that could be used as examples. This project of yours, Matt, is making me a big fan of Irene Dunne as well. I've kind of overlooked her in the past.

    When Leo McCarey accepted his best director award for The Awful Truth, he commented "Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture." He was referring to his other 1937 film "Make Way for Tomorrow" which was overlooked by The Academy. It wasn't by TSPDT, where it is listed at #280, one of two films from 1937 that finished higher than An Awful Truth.

    Oh, as far as Joey Slotnik is concerned, I think you have a nicer name. He should watch A Star is Born and see how it helped Esther Blodgett when she became Vicki Lester. I will say that I did like Joey in Blast from the Past.

  4. Interesting list. I hadn't seen that before. It does seems a little weighted towards arthouse films. Not that I mind that, but taking a quick glance at it, it's immediately evident how different it looks than most Top Films of All Time lists. Which, of course, means that it's a great resource for finding great films that you've never heard of. So thanks for passing that on.

    I'm also becoming a big fan of Irene Dunne. A very intelligent performer. Obviously, Leo McCarey liked her too, using her again in his Love Affair. And then, interestingly, he used Cary Grant in the remake An Affair to Remember, twenty years later.