The Awful Truth

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Criterion;
Comedy;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy.

 If anything, it’s Irene Dunne who owns the greatest of all screwball comedies — playing off a perfect supporting cast and displaying a no-holds-barred wacky streak that we don’t always associate with lifelong ladylike Republicans (though back then, Republicans even in general could be a lot more fun). Still, the likely selling point these days for The Awful Truth is its status as the movie that “invented” the Cary Grant of our dreams — though only after he’d slogged through 28 programmers (mostly for Paramount). Despite being a handsome workhorse, he’d failed to make that much of an impression — even in two relative exceptions opposite that studio’s box office salvation, Mae West: She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel.

There’d also been a few now familiar Grant flickers in George Cukor’s 1935 Sylvia Scarlett opposite Katharine Hepburn, but that movie was such a colossal ’30s flop before its ’70s embrace by the gay community that there were really no blips on anyone’s radar. Truth’s gutsily improvisational director Leo McCarey encouraged everyone, Grant definitely included, to more or less wing it — an approach that not only made the actor unhappy but even spurred his attempt to buy his way out of the picture. As it turned out, McCarey got the year’s Oscar for direction, while the relationship between Grant and McCarey evolved from enmity into friendship and further screen collaborations — concluding with McCarey’s last essential film: An Affair to Remember, 20 years later. McCarey even looked a little like Grant, an interesting sidelight.

Vina Delmar’s script, which nearly everyone agrees was mostly cast aside, is about as mindful of Depression woes as any other screwball comedy. Though nowhere as filthy rich as a family of mucky-mucks who figure prominently in the final quarter, Grant and Dunne live well with their handsome apartment, fancy lounge-around duds, athletic club membership, getaway log cabin and the like; Wild Boys of the Road this is not. The couple’s pending divorce has more to do with flirtatious dalliances than outright adultery (though, significantly, we’re never completely certain). And neither party’s heart ever seems to be completely into the procedure, especially given the legal squabble over — there’s even a judicial hearing here — who will take possession of their pet terrier. The dog cast in this essential role was “Skippy” — best known for playing Asta in the entire run of the “Thin Man” series. Nothing like being a dog and making more decent movies than, say, Kate Hudson has.

Plunked into this, and uproariously, is Ralph Bellamy — who, like Dunne, got an Oscar nomination in one of the two quintessential comic Bellamy roles (the other, again as a scene-stealing foil for Grant, came four years later in His Girl Friday). An oilman, Bellamy finds himself up New York ways from Oklahoma with (of course) a domineering mother. He’s so instantly smitten with Dunne that he arranges an introduction and then proves himself to be an affable but socially gauche rube whose romantic bungling is such that an amused Grant is happy to simply enjoy himself as he waits out the clock. Of course, Grant’s new choice of girlfriends isn’t flawless, either. The first one with whom he takes up, or at least her chosen profession, inspires Dunne’s greatest scene in the movie — which is, in fact, one of the greatest comedy turns I’ve ever seen.

There aren’t as many extras in number as we sometimes get on Criterion releases, but McCarey disciple Molly Haskell penned the booklet essay (I do not deserve to carry her computer mouse), and the equally great Gary Giddins gets close to half-an-hour to expound upon a subject he also knows exceptionally well: McCarey’s style — or at least to the extent that anyone could ever articulate a directorial approach that can never be totally described (How did he “direct” those incredible children in the school Nativity scene in The Bells of St. Mary’s?) In other words, the A-team has just shown up at the door. Giddins knows that you can’t discuss Truth without bringing up Make Way for Tomorrow, the same-year-release that McCarey thought should have won his first Oscar for him, and (as possibly the greatest Hollywood tearjerker ever, despite its commercially catastrophic performance), he may even have been right. Whatever the case, Truth and Tomorrow are clearly the two greatest Hollywood movies of 1937 and by a fairly robust margin, through internationally speaking, Grand Illusion would likely get the nod.

The Awful Truth has been a big one in my movie life for decades, having first seen it on a 6 p.m. Saturday TV showing in fall of ’59, just after I started seventh grade. There were several more viewings over the years, including the many times I ran it at the AFI Theater (always to appreciative packed houses), but I hadn’t seen it in an age until this release. Criterion has also included a brief Dunne audio interview by James Harvey (another go-to person when it comes to romantic comedy) and a remarkable visual essay on Grant’s pre-Truth career. It’s put together by David Cairns and really goes into deep archives to make it points by excerpting obscure early Paramounts in which the actor was rarely seen to adequate advantage (I haven’t seen 1935’s Wings in the Dark since my early teens and had forgotten that it’s a rare case of Grant overacting).

This is a 4K digital restoration, so it goes without saying that I’ve never seen the movie looking this good (Columbia’s studio prints from the ’30s were often in sorry shape when I was programming the AFIT). There’s also a 1939 “Lux Video Theatre” show with Grant where Claudette Colbert stands in for Dunne — which reminds me that in early 1956, NBC-TV devoted one of its Bob Hope specials to a Hope-Dunne version four years after her retirement from the big screen. I have a copy, which I’ve never gotten around to seeing, though you have to believe that it must be a curio-and-a-half. Get cracking, Mike.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Awful Truth’ and ‘Singing Guns’

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