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Saturday, June 7, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Awful Truth (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey
Starring: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy

The Awful Truth is one of several films which find Cary Grant as a divorced man trying to get back his ex-wife – two other notables being His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story - and arguably the best. In Irene Dunne, Grant finds his perfect match, a woman just as classy, just as witty, and just as capable of being silly. Together they create one of the best screen pairings in what is perhaps the best romantic comedy ever made.

Jerry (Grant) and Lucy (Dunne) Warriner are a happily married couple until suspicions of infidelity tear them apart. Lucy finds out that Jerry hasn’t been in Florida like he said he was, and Jerry is suspicious of Lucy’s claims that she and her singing coach, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy), had car trouble and had to stop at an inn for a completely platonic evening. Jerry thinks the story unbelievable. “You’ve come back and caught me in the truth, and there’s nothing less logical than the truth,” Lucy replies breezily. They file for divorce, fight over custody of their dog Smith (played by Asta who also appears with Grant in Bringing Up Baby and in all the films of The Thin Man series), and wait for the end of their marriage to be finalized.

While they’re waiting, Lucy meets Dan (Ralph Bellamy), a businessman from Oklahoma with whom she has a quick courtship and becomes engaged. Jerry causes as much trouble in the relationship as he can but by the time it’s broken up, he has moved on to another woman. Now it’s Lucy’s turn to break up his next potential marriage. All this leads to an evening spent in a cabin, an adjoining door that won’t stay shut, and a final admission of love and a reconciliation – “Maybe things could be the same again… only a little different, huh?” Lucy asks. This is all formula, of course; we all know that Jerry and Lucy will be back together by the end – it’s what happens in between that makes this film priceless.

Firstly, you have the contrast between the witty, urbane Grant and the sincere, corn-fed Bellamy. After being run-around by Jerry, Dan probably looks like a catch to Lucy (“How can you be glad to know me?” Jerry asks Dan, “I know how I’d feel if I was sitting with a girl and her husband walked in.” “I’ll bet you do,” Lucy retorts), but ultimately she and Jerry are cut from the same cloth and the relationship with Dan is doomed from the beginning. She likes Dan, to be sure, but there are things about him that give her pause. For instance, a poem he writes for her:
For you, my little prairie flower
I’m thinking of you every hour
It would make my life divine
If you would change your name to mine.

Dan doesn’t make Jerry jealous so much as he amuses him. Jerry knows that Lucy could never be happy in the long term with Dan, living in Oklahoma, and in breaking up the relationship, he sees himself as saving her from herself. Lucy’s Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham) ultimately agrees, even though she’s the one who arranged the meeting between Lucy and Dan. “I feel like I’ve just been given a crash course in women,” Dan tells Lucy after finding Jerry and Armand in her bedroom. “Here’s your diploma,” Patsy replies, handing him a letter Lucy had written to call off the engagement.

The film has a very sharp wit, but it also comes stocked with a great supply of physical comedy. There is a scene where Dan and Lucy run into Jerry and a date at a restaurant. Dan asks Lucy to dance and then engages in the most bizarre, hilarious and surreal interpretation of dancing ever known to man. There is also a scene where Jerry thinks he’s about to find Lucy in a compromising position with Armand and, after first engaging in karate with Armand’s butler, Jerry bursts into the room to find Lucy giving a recital. He sits at the back and falls off his chair, while Lucy attempts to continue singing through her laughter.

What makes this film really work though is the fact that it just looks like the actors had fun making it.In the restaurant scene, Jerry’s date gets up to sing a song which involves a fan underneath the stage blowing up her skirt while she tries to maintain her modesty. Dan, Jerry and Lucy all watch with a mixture of horror, embarrassment and amusement. “I just met her,” Jerry says, turning to Lucy. Later, Lucy will embarrass and amuse Jerry with the same routine when she crashes a dinner party thrown by Jerry’s potential in-laws. The give-and-take of Grant and Dunne’s onscreen partnership is very enjoyable to watch.

There is absolutely nothing about this film that I don’t love, although there is one element that has always given me pause. A great deal is made of the idea that Lucy has been unfaithful with Armand to the extent that Jerry continues trying to catch them together even after he and Lucy have decided to divorce. But no one makes a big deal about Jerry’s whereabouts when he was supposed to be in Florida. Even Lucy seems to have let it go after having found out about it. But I suppose that’s just the nature of the double standard. At any rate, this is a great movie, the perfect movie to watch if you’ve had a bad day, and one that can be watched over and over again without losing an ounce of zing.

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