The Awful Truth made Cary Grant.
Though he’d been acting in films since 1932, he was little more than an attractive plug and play leading man, indistinguishable from most of his contemporaries.
He needed a director and leading lady who could bring out his unique charm.
He found them in Leo McCarey and Irene Dunne.
McCarey was an alcoholic Irishman who barely had a script together when filming began. Though this made Grant, Dunne, and supporting actor Ralph Bellamy anxious, it gave them great freedom to improvise in rehearsals. They played around and tried new things, allowing Grant to refashion his training as a child acrobat into superb screwball comedy.
McCarey and the writers would figure out scenes on the fly or the night before (though perhaps the true extent of this spontaneity was exaggerated after the film became a huge success) and it makes for a light and airy film that dances from scene to scene.
Today, Irene Dunne is often referred to as the “female Cary Grant,” but it would be more accurate to call Cary Grant the “male Irene Dunne” as she was the bigger star in 1937—already a two-time Oscar nominee and a triple threat singer, actress, and comedienne.
Either way, there’s no doubt they were comedic mirror images of one another.
Two beautiful people who didn’t quite know how beautiful they were, so they relied on wit and charm instead of coasting on looks.
Both Grant and Dunne were incapable of losing their dignity on screen, no matter how screwy their characters were acting. Their characters have a way of seeming to raise an eyebrow to the audience, letting you know you’re all in on the joke together.
Onscreen, they were a perfect match.
The Awful Truth is the first—and best—of their three films together.
They play Lucy and Jerry Warriner, a married couple who decides to divorce when each suspects the other—with ample evidence—of infidelity. In the famous opening scene, Jerry is at a tanning bed, getting some manufactured sun to convince his wife he’s been in Florida.
He returns home in the early morning and doesn’t find her waiting for him—instead, she breezes in, dressed to the nines with her handsome music teacher.
Jerry’s not buying her story about a broken down car that forced them to spend the night together, and she’s not buying that he spent the week in Florida—especially when the oranges he gives her are stamped with “California.”
So off to divorce court they go, where they fight over their dog Mr. Smith, played charmingly by Asta (who’d made doggy fame in The Thin Man and would go on to star again with Grant in Bringing Up Baby). When the judge decides that Mr. Smith will choose who he wants to live with, Lucy cheats by tempting him with a dog toy.
Such is the state of the Warriner’s marriage—a sophisticated game of verbal tennis and constant one-upmanship.
Lucy is thrilled to be rid of Jerry.
Or is she?
In a race to prove who can get over the other first, both Lucy and Jerry find new lovers pronto. Jerry moves from a silly dance hall girl to an heiress, but Lucy finds an Oklahoma oilman played to perfection by Ralph Bellamy.
Bellamy is a supporting actor who never got the girl or his name above the title, but greatly improved nearly every film he was in. On paper, he’s the better man for Lucy—earnest and wealthy, she’d never have to wonder if he was really in Florida.
And the awful truth is that he bores her to tears.
Soon enough, Lucy and Jerry are trying to win each other back without letting on that they care a bit.
And the awful truth is that neither one of them has changed a bit, and that the only thing worse than being together is being apart.
It’s impossible to name the greatest screwball comedy ever made—trying to rank films like The Lady Eve, My Man Godfrey, and His Girl Friday is a pointless task, but The Awful Truth is always in the conversation.
The Awful Truth is as funny and universal today as it was in 1937. It’s got nothing in it that would offend modern audiences. Jerry and Lucy are on even ground, formidable opponents that each give as good as they get. It doesn’t dissolve into insanity like Godfrey or Bringing Up Baby.
It’s more like a comedy of manners—imagine Jane Austen writing a screwball comedy, and you’ve got The Awful Truth.
The Awful Truth was beloved by audiences and critics alike, the rare comedy that was showered with six well-deserved Oscar nominations, including Supporting Actor (Bellamy), Best Actress (Dunne), Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Director (McCarey).
Leo McCarey was the lone winner for Best Director.
Despite their long careers, neither Dunne (5 nominations) nor Grant (2 nominations) ever won an individual Oscar. (And criminally, Dunne was never awarded an honorary Oscar.)
Decades after they’d worked together, Cary Grant said of his co-star, “Irene Dunne’s timing was marvelous. She was so good that she made comedy look easy. If she’d made it look as difficult as it really is, she would have won her Oscar.” 1
The same could be said of him.
And that’s the awful truth.
- Eyman, Scott. Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. 2020.
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