The Awful Truth about Director Leo McCarey

Irene Dunne (centre) disrupts Cary Grant’s romance. Image: IMDB

Who doesn’t love a film with layers of humour?

We recently re-watched the 1937 screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, which, in our opinion, has some of the funniest scenes in classic film.

We’re serious. You can’t watch this movie while those around you are trying to concentrate/sleep/be grumpy. It’s a movie that could make you snort-laugh, which is never a delicate thing.

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant star as a married couple, each of whom suspects the other is unfaithful. They finally Call It Quits when Dunne becomes stranded overnight at a country inn with her handsome music teacher. Despite Dunne’s insistence that Nothing Went On, Grant doesn’t believe her.

After they separate, and during the three months before the divorce becomes final, Dunne meets a rich but unsophisticated Oklahoman (Ralph Bellamy), while Grant meets a young woman from a wealthy and stodgy family.

It’s not necessary to issue spoiler alerts, because you know how the film ends before it even starts. Dunne dumps the hapless Bellamy when she realizes she still loves Grant. As for Grant, he discovers Dunne was never unfaithful; in other words, he discovers The Awful Truth.

It’s a gem of a film, with a witty script and sparkling performances – and that would have been enough.

But, happily for us, director Leo McCarey treats us to extra dollops of humour.

Grant and friend aren’t pleased to see You-Know-Who. Image: Now Playing Austin

McCarey is a cheeky director. For example, look at the scene where Dunne’s older-but-still-attractive aunt (Cecil Cunningham) first meets Bellamy. As they wait for an elevator, they share knowing laughs while sizing up each other in a not-so-discreet manner.

Here’s McCarey at work: Cunningham and Bellamy step onto the elevator, and McCarey’s camera focuses on the floor indicator. We watch the elevator descend from the 11th floor to the 3rd, where it stops before it starts climbing back up. When the elevator doors re-open, Cunningham and Bellamy emerge, laughing, arm in arm.

Or look at the scene where a conciliatory Grant visits Dunne, but ducks into the bedroom when Bellamy and his mother arrive. In the bedroom, Grant discovers Dunne’s music teacher, hiding from him. Meanwhile, Dunne, Bellamy & Co. are trying to have a Nice Conversation in the living room, but they must talk louder and louder to make themselves heard over the raucous fistfight in the bedroom.

How can you not love such a film?

Director Leo McCarey, centre, in a publicity photo. Image: Pinterest

Leo McCarey (October 3, 1889 – July 5, 1969) began his Hollywood career in 1918 as a director’s assistant; by the mid-1920s he was working at Hal Roach Studios, writing gags and directing. They say it was he who insisted the studio’s top comics, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, become a permanent comedy team.

McCarey’s next studio was Paramount; his films there included the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). Historians say he distinguished himself when he directed Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), creating “a comic sense that blended reality and farce, a glorification of the American character…with a condemnation of American materialism and naïveté”.¹

After leaving Paramount, McCarey went to Columbia, where he made The Awful Truth. Film Historian Molly Haskell says Cary Grant wanted out of the film because the production was too unstructured; besides, he didn’t believe anyone would cheat on beautiful Irene Dunne.

But McCarey saw something in Grant. The Awful Truth is credited as the first film where Cary Grant was, well, Cary Grant. “[H]ow could anyone have suspected the anarchic goofball spirit that McCarey would uncover,” asks Haskell. “A leading man who could rough himself up—it took McCarey to entice this creature into being.”²

Sadly, McCarey isn’t well known today; he doesn’t have the name recognition of a Frank Capra or Orson Welles. But he was a Big Deal in his day.

“His films were often hugely successful with audiences, and his colleagues admired his work (three Oscars and 36 nominations for his films…),” says Senses of Cinema. “Jean Renoir expressed a once widely held sentiment when he remarked, ‘McCarey understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.’”³

McCarey won Best Director for The Awful Truth; the film was nominated for five other Oscars, including Best Picture.

Please make the time to see this film. It’s too much fun to miss.

This post is part of the OCTOBER BIRTHDAYZ BLOGATHON hosted by No Nonsense with Nuwan Sen.

The Awful Truth: starring Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy. Directed by Leo McCarey. Written by Vina Delmar. Columbia Pictures, 1937, B&W, 91 mins.

Sources

¹Brittanica.com. (Retrieved October 28, 2018.) Leo McCarey, American Director, by Michael Barson.
²The Criterion Collection. (Retrieved October 28, 2018.) The Awful Truth: Divorce, McCarey Style, by Molly Haskell.
³Senses of Cinema. (Retrieved October 27, 2018.) McCarey, Leo, by Paul Harrill.

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45 comments

    • Haha! That is such a funny scene! I love the reactions of Dunne, Grant and Bellamy at the table during the “Gone with the Wind” number. If I were part of that scene, I would NEVER be able to keep a straight face.

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  1. Love your post about a film that is impossible NOT to love (I dare anyone!) Cary Grant and Irene Dunne go together like peaches and cream. Just delicious.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this piece, reading it brought back memories of all the great scenes from this film, even those involving the dog (Asta) and the cat at the end. The elevator scene is also a favourite. I must admit that I’ve enjoyed all of the McCarey films I’ve seen so far, but I do like The Awful Truth more than most. It’s nteresting to read that Cary Grant wanted to get out of making this movie, I’ve also heard he even tried to swap roles with Ralph Bellamy – just imagine that! Anyway, great entry to the blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cary Grant to swap roles with Ralph Bellamy! Good grief! I’m certainly glad THAT didn’t happen.

      I loved the Mr Smith dog, and the cat, in this film. Leo McCarey wasted nothing in this film; he made the most of every single aspect, didn’t he?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my favorite movies of all time. There’s one scene where Cary Grant calls the dog, “Skippy.”
    While ‘Asta’ became the dog’s stage name after he appeared in ‘The Thin Man,’ Skippy is actually the name the owner/trainer called him.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely post Ruth, and thanks for taking part in the Blogathon. I haven’t seen this movie, but I can imagine what fun it must be. Irene Dunne & Cary Grant had a great chemistry. Recall watching “Penny Serenade” (1941), set in a more serious tone, ages ago, and thinking she must be his second best co-star, along with Rosalind Russell (I love his chemistry with Ingrid Bergman the most).
    Speaking of no real spoilers, as the ending is predictable; anyway when it comes to a movie it’s about the journey a film takes, how well it is made and how enjoyable it is, and not just about the ending. If you have read book and then watch movie adaptation, or see a remake, or if it’s a bio-pic, or based on other real life events, you know how it ends, but that doesn’t matter; it’s how a good a cinematic experience it is, what truly matters.
    Of course since this is a comedy, it is obvious all the misunderstandings would eventually come to light. But if it was a serious drama, the story could have gone either way.
    It’s so true and so sad what you said about Leo McCarey, he is virtually unknown today. But with true film buffs like us, these forgotten gems (movies & movie personalities) shall never die.
    Thanks a ton!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is one of my favourite classic films! I recently picked up the Criterion bluray and I love it so much. You’re right, it’s impossible not to snort-laugh whilst watching this screwball comedy gem.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice review. I saw it a bit differently than you did. There is a good chance that both of them cheated on each other. Where had Grant really been when he said he came back from his trip? Not in Florida. We never really find out what the awful truth is at all. Which is fine with me. It’s a great movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I believe Grant was cheating, which is why it was so easy for him to believe it of Dunne. I didn’t want to get into it in my post, so I just talked about the circumstances re: that one out-of-town night with the music teacher. I agree they likely cheated on each other. Like you said, it’s a great film and so much fun.

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  7. Leo McCarey is one of those directors that made a bunch of good movies, but he never gets the accolades like Capra, Ford, Curtiz, Hawks, etc. He is obviously superb at directing dogs, because Mr. Smith has some of the funniest scenes in this movie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think he’s forgotten in the classic film community – heaven forbid – but it i’s possible I’m relying too much on my own anecdotal expertise, eg other film writers I’ve talked to, things I’ve read, etc. I truly hope things are not as bad as that.

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  8. I like this film a lot and I’m in a desperate need of a rewatch – for instance, I didn’t remember the second scene with Grant and the music teacher in the bedroom! I love that GAG when Grant falls from his chair – definetely something McCarey brought from his Hal Roach days.
    Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I live the scene where Grant falls from the chair. He makes it look so easy! As for the scene in the bedroom with the music teacher, I nearly spit out my tea I was laughing so hard. I hope you get a chance to re-watch this soon. With everything going on in the world, a person needs a soul-refreshing movie like this one.

      Like

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