Criterion Review: THE AWFUL TRUTH

Irene Dunne & Cary Grant delight in McCarey’s screwball classic

Who are we to believe in The Awful Truth? The husband getting a tan so his fib to his wife about a trip to Florida is more plausible? Or the wife arriving to an impromptu midday party in the gown she wore the night before, spinning a yarn about her voice teacher’s car trouble? Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are paired in the classic screwball comedy as Jerry & Lucy Warriner, a less than faithful couple who divorce yet find themselves ever drawn to each other.

Director Leo McCarey’s 1937 comedy is based on a screenplay from author Viña Delmar (loosely adapted from a stage play by Arthur Richman). Delmar and McCarey collaborated on another work earlier that year, the weeper Make Way for Tomorrow (which would later inspire Ozu’s touchstone Tokyo Story). Both films center on the separation of a married couple, but the only tears caused by The Awful Truth are from laughter.

McCarey’s comedy moves at a fast clip, thanks to the deft touch of editor Al Clark and the effervescent wit of the screenplay. The director makes good use of Grant’s acrobatic skills and Dunne’s singing talent. For a non-musical, a large portion of this movie happens to involve singing or dancing.

Supporting actor Ralph Bellamy, known for playing guys who never end up with the gal, is an oilman romancing Dunne’s Lucy. He duets with her on an out-of-tune rendition of “Home on the Range” and leads her in a hilarious routine on a nightclub floor. Even animal star Skippy (The Thin Man, Bringing Up Baby) performs his own vocals as the couple’s dog, Mr. Smith, warbling along with Grant’s piano playing.

McCarey’s freewheeling directing style, which led to much improvisation from his actors on set, so worried Grant that he tried to get out of this film. Instead, his role in The Awful Truth and McCarey’s influence helped create the persona the actor would perform in future works: a charismatic gentleman unafraid of pratfalls and quick dialogue. A video essay from critic David Cairns included in the recent Criterion release goes into further detail about Grant’s evolution. The handsome performer would work again with McCarey on sentimental romantic comedy, An Affair to Remember.

In past years I’ve adamantly called My Favorite Wife my favorite pairing of Dunne & Grant, but as this month’s viewing of The Awful Truth made me laugh so hard I cried, I may have to change my opinion. Dunne is disarmingly daffy, Grant is affably charming, and it’s obvious to any viewer that the separation between Lucy and Jerry can’t last long.

The Criterion BluRay edition includes:

  • 4K digital restoration of the feature
  • Video essay on Cary Grant before The Awful Truth and McCarey’s impact on the actor’s theatrical persona, from critic David Cairns
  • Audio interview from 1978 with actress Irene Dunne, illustrated with film stills & clips
  • Interview with critic Gary Giddins about director McCarey’s improvisational style and the creation of The Awful Truth
  • Essay from author and critic Molly Haskell

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