Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard

True Confession Opening

For their fourth (and though neither suspected it at the time) final film, Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray made a pure screwball comedy, with a heroine every bit as zany as the one Lombard played in My Man Godfrey (1936.)

In True Confession, Lombard and MacMurray play Helen and Ken Bartlett, a young married couple with a few problems.  The first and most pressing is that they don’t have enough money to pay the butcher.

But Helen’s figured out a way around that—she’s discovered that a relative of the butcher has been arrested for stealing a truckload of hams.  She figures her lawyer-husband Ken can represent the ham stealer, and then they’ll be square with the butcher and have a little cash left over.

But that brings us to problem number two—Ken is such an idealistic lawyer that he refuses to represent anyone who is guilty.  So representing the butcher’s relative it out.  And quite frankly, only representing innocent people is no way to make a proper living.

Also out is Helen getting a job, which she has proposed many times and Ken has shot down as it would be humiliating to have their friends know he couldn’t take care of his own wife financially.

And then we have the third problem—Ken, honest as the day is long, is married to a compulsive, serial liar.

Now don’t get me wrong—Helen doesn’t commit dishonest sins such as adultery or theft.  She’s more like a child with an overactive imagination who makes up tall tales to get her way.

Just to keep the audience clear, Lombard gives Helen a tell you could see from outer space—when she’s about to tell a whopper, she sticks her tongue literally into her cheek.

Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard
Lombard and MacMurray

She gets a job behind Ken’s back, and it turns out that the man who hired her to be his secretary was actually looking for a Pretty Woman.  When he winds up dead, shot with a gun belonging to the Bartlett’s, Helen is the prime suspect.

For once she’s telling the truth when she proclaims her innocence, but Ken assumes her guilt and worries she’ll get the electric chair if she continues to “lie.”  The only way to get out of the mess is to admit she killed the wolf in self-defense.

Tongue pounding that cheek, Helen almost gleefully admits to a murder she didn’t commit.

Ken, who thus far hasn’t shown himself to be much of a lawyer, realizes defending his wife—a case that will be blitzed with publicity—is his big break.

The courtroom is filled with reporters, onlookers, and one very strange rubber necker—a seedy drunk named Charley Jasper played by none other than the great John Barrymore.

When Lombard read the script (which was written specifically for her), she insisted Barrymore get the part of Jasper.

Her persistence paid off—Barrymore and Lombard played first played off one another in Twentieth Century (1934), the film that catapulted Lombard to stardom.  In that film, they play two crazy characters constantly trying to top one another with their antics.

They recapture the magic in True Confession.

Carole Lombard and John Barrymore
Lombard and Barrymore

Jasper’s interest in the case is not immediately clear—as he notes that he goes to court everyday to watch the proceedings, it’s not even clear if he has a particular interest in Helen’s case, though he is found of telling her she is going to “fry”, a predication that understandably rattles her.

But as the film goes on, we learn that Jasper does indeed have a vested interest in this case, and soon Lombard and Barrymore are once more trying to top one another onscreen.

The results are delightful.  They’re so good, in fact, that poor Fred MacMurray gets a little lost in the film as the mustachioed, do-gooder husband.

Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard

I hesitate to give away any more, as the twists and turns of the ridiculous plot provide the film’s charm. 

Helen continues to wiggle out of one lie by telling an even bigger one.  As the lies escalate, the audience is left to wonder if this will lead to her ultimate triumph or ruin.

Ken is certain it will be ruin, but we’re not so sure.

Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray figured they’d make more films together, and they almost did, but nothing ever came off.  Lombard left Paramount after making True Confession, which complicated the possibility of future pairings.

Lombard turned down several scripts for films with MacMurray because she thought they weren’t strong enough. 

Preston Sturges wrote Remember the Night with her in mind, but by that time Lombard was able to demand a salary that Paramount didn’t want to pay and never offered her the role.

Perhaps that was for the best, because it allowed Fred MacMurray to launch a collaboration with Barbara Stanwyck, another of his best on-screen partners.  They too would go on to make 4 films together, including Double Indemnity, the crown jewel of film noir.

True Confession Verdict:  Give It a Shot


  1. Swindell, Larry.  Screwball:  The Life of Carole Lombard.  1975.
  2. “Fred MacMurray:  The Guy Next Door.”  The Hollywood Collection.  Documentary.