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.
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?
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.
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.