A stylish New York society couple squabble over nothing and petulantly decide to divorce, in spite of the fact that they still love one another. One of the classics of the screwball comedy genre, The Awful Truth witnesses not the first blush of young love, but the shared experiences of married life as as a basis for passion and devotion.
Screwball comedy is a genre described by critic Andrew Sarris as “sex comedy without the sex”, as comic aggravation is substituted for the more conventional signs of love. In baseball, a screwball pitch is one that has an erratic path, although it is thrown in a precise manner. In the 1930s, the cinematic term could be interpreted as “lunacy, speed, unpredictability, unconventionality, giddiness, drunkenness, flight and adversarial sport” (Sikov). Such films often show equality between men and women, at least as far as the wisecrack is concerned, and women are often the romantic aggressors (perhaps, men found this particularly amusing). In 1934, the censorship guidelines of the Production Code were enforced and all racy behavior (among other objectionable topics) was banned. Coincidentally or not, the first two prototype screwball comedy classics, It Happened One Night and Twentieth Century were made in that year. If the screwball style benefited from film censorship, it did as well from the influx of Broadway playwrights to Hollywood at the beginning of the sound era, as they brought their witty verbal style from stage to screen. Visually, screwball comedy melded glamorous Art Deco settings with the traditions of silent slapstick to create a new hybrid form. In these films, humor, both verbal and physical, provides the intimacy necessary for love.
The Awful Truth was produced on Broadway in 1921, and had been
filmed twice before, once as a silent version with Agnes Ayres and as
an early talkie in 1929, starring Ina Claire, the star of the stage play.
Divorce was a hot topic in the 1920s, when couples began to experience
the social freedom to become un-married. This was exploited in many novels
(like Ex-Wife, source for the Norma Shearer The
Divorcée) and plays like The Awful Truth. There were
many craftsmen noodling on the script of the 1937 version, including
New Yorker wit Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell. The final
shooting script was written by McCarey in collaboration with a husband
and wife team who wrote under the wife’s name of Viña Delmar.
They wrote mostly magazine stories, but also some screenplays, including
McCarey’s previous film, a heart-rending melodrama called Make
Way for Tomorrow. In it, an elderly couple loses the mortgage on
their home and asks their four children for help. The children brutally
decide to separate the devoted pair for financial reasons and the film’s
central episode recounts a moment where the couple relives their youthful
happiness together before being permanently split asunder. Interestingly,
this film, retitled Bagbhan (The Gardener) was remade
quite faithfully (with the addition of some glamour and a happy ending)
in Hindi in 2003, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. Make
Way for Tomorrow was far too depressing to be a box-office success,
but laid the groundwork for McCarey’s light-hearted exploration
of an established marriage in The Awful Truth. In an interview,
McCarey confessed, “What pleases me most about The Awful Truth is
that it told, somewhat, the story of my life. (Don’t repeat that,
my wife will want to kill me.”) (Kendall). McCarey and Irene Dunne
had a lot in common, both Catholic, they were married to the same spouses
for their whole lives, although McCarey was a notorious philanderer.
Irene Dunne was nearly 40 when she starred in The Awful Truth. Her Broadway musical comedy career was undistinguished until landing the plum role of Magnolia in the 1929 Show Boat. Signed by Hollywood, she made a career in the sentimental women’s pictures called “weepers” as well as a musical or two, recreating her stage role in the first filmed version (by Frankenstein’s James Whale) of Show Boat, and sang endless choruses of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in the Astaire-Rogers Roberta. Her debut as a screwball comedy heroine came in Theodora Goes Wild (1936) where she played a demure authoress who writes a racy best-seller and comes to the big city, learning how to enjoy herself under the tutelage of Melvyn Douglas.
This striking suit of silver lame accentuates the loveliness of Irene Dunne, now to be seen in "Transient Love." In private life Irene is the star of a "long distance" marriage. Her husband, Dr.Francis Griffin, is a New York dentist. One or the other is always on the jump between Hollywood and New York. Absence seems to whet their fondness.
Dunne was reluctant to be a comic actress. She spent two months in Europe evading Theodora, hoping the studio would lose interest in casting her in a comedy. She felt comedy was “too easy” but characteristically worked hard at it. Lucille Ball spoke of observing the stars on the set when she was an obscure player. She said while Hepburn would do a scene precisely the same way take after take, Dunne was always improvising, “I watched her do takes—literally one day there were 32 takes—and 25 must have been different. She really worked on how to do that scene.” One of the great pleasures of The Awful Truth is that Dunne looks continually amazed at what she is doing. Her high spirits seem to take her haphazardly in many directions. “When Lombard breaks loose, wonderful as it is, it’s more or less what she’s led you to expect. When Dunne does so, it’s always unexpected in some way—and tantalizing. In fact, Dunne on the screen is mysterious I the way that only the greatest movie stars are” (Harvey).
“Comedy is more difficult than tragedy,” said Dunne in an interview. “Good comedy techniques are harder to acquire. The shadings of meaning and character are subtler, the timing is everything. A flick of a finger can be important—if it’s flicked in the right way, and the whole gesture is small. Once learned, comedy techniques can be used for drama merely by slowing them down. An actress who can do comedy can do drama, the the vice versa isn’t necessarily true. Big emotional scenes are much easier to play than comedy. An onion can bring tears to your eyes, but what vegetable can make you laugh?”(Madden).
Much of the of the dialogue in the film, as well as the comic business, was improvised by McCarey and his cast on the set. This technique unnerved Cary Grant, so much so that he tried to buy himself out of the film. Until The Awful Truth, the star persona “Cary Grant” had not really come into existence, and the bemused comic icon that would soon sparkle on screen so delightfully in films like Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story was constructed haphazardly by McCarey’s improvisations on the set of The Awful Truth. Writer Garson Kanin said that Grant was encouraged to imitate the director’s urbane and witty manner, in fact, McCarey would sometimes describe himself as the “poor man’s Cary Grant.” Grant had been eye-candy in early 1930s films starring Paramount leading ladies Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, and was a little nervous about having to be sexy and funny at the same time. “But Grant pulls it off: a virtuoso screwball performance full of slapstick, looney antics, impeccable timing and breathtaking wit. No leading man had done anything quite like this before. And never before, oddly enough, had this leading man seemed so powerfully romantic as he did now in this all-out screwball style. It was this kind of performing that was Cary Grant’s breakthrough, just as it had been for the great women stars before him—a fulfillment and a liberation.” (Harvey). Grant’s early life as a circus performer prepared him well for the unexpected physical comedy in this film, a McCarey specialty. Grant so liked his alter ego that he was often quoted as saying that even he wished he were “Cary Grant.”
McCarey discussed his comedy techniques in 1937 for the New York Herald Tribune. He loved the scene in The Awful Truth where Cary Grant falls off a chair. "but, falling off a chair for a purpose, remember. There must always be a good reason behind slapstick." (Louvish 182). Modern romantic comedies often fail, not just with their lack of timing, and misunderstanding that men and women must be comic equals, but also that even knockabout comedy needs motivation. A pratfall interpolated for no reason but desperation is simply not funny.
The lack of communication between the couple is infuriating…and certainly one of the hallmarks of both romantic and screwball comedy. McCarey gives them a dog, Mr. Smith, played by the same dog who played Asta in the Thin Man movies, whose eloquent behavior sometimes communicates when the protagonists cannot. This is one of the all time great dog performances, by Skippy.
Skippy was a wire-haired fox terrier born in 1931. His owner-trainers were Henry East and his wife, Gale Henry East. Gale Henry was one of the first women to have her own series of short comedies, capitalizing on her oddball appearance (some have suggested she was the model for Olive Oyl). Her most oft-shown films have her in support of Charley Chase, as in "Mighty Like a Moose." Henry East was a prop man at MGM, and in cinema’s early days, animals were considered live props. If a dog was needed for a scene, East would find and train them, a job he had been doing since 1923. He discovered his talent as a trainer (and spotter of canine talent) when he trained a dog to play dead for a long shot in one of his wife’s comedy shorts. His success soon brought others seeking trained dogs to the Easts, and they realized they had a skill that Hollywood could use. East Kennels was the home of most 1930s and 40s dog actors. Skippy was first a bit player, starting when he was one year old. He was not distracted by the lights and activity on the sets, even though his breed had a bad reputation of being unpredictable. Being able to follow directions was vital in the days when films were shot quickly and retakes necessitated by undisciplined actors, human or animal, cost the studio too much money.
Skippy was cast as Asta in The Thin Man in 1934. Nick and Nora
in the novel was a schnauzer, but after meeting director W. S. Van Dyke,
Skippy was cast. He had to perform impeccably, as the film was shot in
a swift 14 days. He not only followed directions beautifully, but his
expressive face added to the comedy. Gale Henry West emphasized that
they did not teach their dogs to do tricks, but to perform naturally,
reacting on cue to their off camera hand signals. Skippy did not socialize
with the actors off screen, his trainers believed that would blur the
distinction between work and play, making it more difficult for the dog
to focus while acting. Skippy (now often called Asta) continued to work
in The Thin Man sequels,
and co-starring later in The Awful Truth and Bringing
Supposedly, in one scene in this film, Cary Grant calls the dog
Skippy, instead of his character name, Mr. Smith. In Shadow of the
Thin Man (1941) the role of Asta was shared by the againg Skippy,
and his son, Asta, Jr., and no word of the dog’s demise was ever
Lucy and Jerry Warriner discover during the course of their rift that their intimacy is strongest when indulging their similar senses of humor. “The childish insanity of the Irene Dunne-Cary Grant marriage in The Awful Truth, for instance, is incessantly redeemed by their superb surroundings, not to mention the extraordinary appeal of the stars themselves. Rarely has the ridiculous been so inextricably linked to the sublime. Part of the reason Dunne’s and Grant’s bickering is so funny is that it occurs between two of Hollywood’s best looking stars in the context of a huge, dreamily elegant apartment. It is difficult, at time, to decide exactly what is undercutting what.” (Sikov). He concludes that screwball comedies thrive on “good taste and bad manners.”
“Probably only McCarey, with his zest for comic routines and improvisatory style, would have had the nerve to do what this movie does: to bank almost everything on the screwball couple themselves. There is no murder mystery, no social satire, no music or dancing, no gallery of supporting comic stooges, no sentiment or gestures towards populism—almost, in fact, no plot. There is 'only' Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, the wittiest couple of them all” (Harvey). In fact, this technique is similar to the comedy McCarey devised for Laurel and Hardy, where many of the laughs came from the comedians' stares into the camera, or exasperated looks at each other rather than any particular comedy business. Clearly, there are relatively few incidents, but each is milked to the extreme, for example, as the camera lingers on the faces of Dunne, Grant and Ralph Bellamy as Grant’s new amour, Dixie Belle Lee does her tasteless nightclub act.
In romantic and screwball comedies, there is often an inappropriate fiancé(e), as one or the other of the lead couple try to deny their impulses by getting engaged to the enemy, as if that will transform them into the ordinary. The couple’s joint realization of the futility of such a movie triggers the reconciliation. Cultural convention says that the woman much teach the man about his own emotions, but here it seems both characters are waiting for the other to come around and realize the joint mistake. Ralph Bellamy often played the stuffy fiancé, but here it must be acknowledged that he is a great comic character, as well, unlike the role he played in films like His Girl Friday, where his job was to be as irritatingly boring as possible. His hilarious rendition of “Home on the Range” gives him a comic set piece of his own, in fact, this was the first scene filmed and no doubt established the loosey-goosey tone.
The witty wardrobe was designed by Columbia contract designer Robert Kalloch. His most famous clothes were for Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Irene Dunne not only has a bizarre selection of hats, but almost each outfit is just a bit too, too. A white mink has extra poufs of fluffy fur on the shoulders, a lounging outfit has pyjama pants so long they drag, Dunne is trés chic and a bit ridiculous at the same time.
Robert Kalloch and one of his nutty designs for Irene Dunne
Unlike Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, which was not a success when it was first released, The Awful Truth was a big hit. McCarey won a Best Director Oscar, still rarely awarded for comedies, and the film was nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay, Actress and supporting Actor. This film is not revived as often as it should be. I watched Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story and It Happened One Night many times before discovering it. But, it's a delightful comic gem that deserves to be enjoyed, just like the other classic screwball comedies, again and again.
(Portrait photos (rather the worse for glue) from anonymous movie star scrapbook, Dunne in silver lame from March, 1934 Photoplay magazine, production still from The Talkies by Daniel Blum, costume check photo from Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti. Sources include The Runaway Bride by Elizabeth Kendall, Screwball by Ed Sikov, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood by James Harvey, Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich, “Irene Dunne” by James C. Madden in the December, 1969 Films in Review, Stan and Ollie by Simon Louvish, Asta biography adapted from "Asta aka Skippy" by Robert Grayson in Fall 2009 Films of the Golden Age ).