If you are interested in a great romantic comedy, please skip the truly ugly The Ugly Truth that played in theaters last year, and check out Leo Mc Carey’s The Awful Truth (1937), starring Cary Grant, Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy.
Of all the leading men in Hollywood history, Cary Grant is the standard to which all others are measured. An interviewer once stated “Everybody would like to be Cary Grant,” to which Grant is said to have replied, “So would I.” Biographer Mark Eliot observes that “Very few actors are able to withstand the changing morays of time. The reason why Cary Grant does and Clark Gable doesn’t or Cary Grant does and Gary Cooper doesn’t is that he never allowed himself to be identified with any specific period.” Author Ian Fleming said that he had Grant in mind when he created his sophisticated superspy character, James Bond. Producer Cubby Broccoli recalled that in 1962 the 58 year-old Grant was in fact the first choice to play Bond in Dr. No.
Historian David Thomson calls Grant “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema,” Later he states “he is much more complicated than any of those actors of the thirties…he is riveting.” Critic Andrew Sarris says, “I don’t think we will ever have another Cary Grant. Nobody comes close.” Thomson asks “How could anyone be Cary Grant? But how can anyone, ever after not consider the attempt?” In a career lasting over 30 years Grant had no peer—four decades later he still has none.
Author/director Peter Bogdanovich claims The Awful Truth marks “Cary Grant’s first real Cary Grant performance,” Rob Nixon believes this film “ indelibly defined the irresistible mix of tuxedoed sophistication, comic agitation, and adroit (and highly attractive) physicality for which Grant will be forever known. “Just as [George] Cukor had discovered the sly cockiness of Archie Leach in Cary Grant, so director Leo McCarey now revealed the agitation behind the aloofness,” observed biographer Geoffrey Wansell. Writer Garson Kanin told Bogdanovich that McCarey had tremendous influence on Grant and that the actor was in fact “imitating McCarey’s own urbane manner as well as his infectious zaniness” in his performance in this picture. (There was a striking physical similarity between director and star.)
Leo McCarey had helmed a number of pictures at Paramount: Marx Brothers comedies (Duck Soup, 1933), W.C. Fields (Six of a Kind, 1934), Mae West (Belle of the Nineties, 1934), and Harold Lloyd (The Milky Way,1936), when he took a chance with Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a heartrending film about old age. The picture bombed and studio head Adolph Zukor dropped McCarey’s contract, forcing him over to Columbia. There, mogul Harry Cohn was looking for a new vehicle for Irene Dunne, who had earned a second Oscar nomination for Theodora Goes Wild (1936), which revealed her until-then undiscovered comedic ability.
In 1922 Arthur Richman wrote the hit play, The Awful Truth. McCarey’s 1937 picture was the third film adaptation (The first in 1925, then 1929, and a final remake in 1953 as Let’s Do It Again). McCarey’s is the definitive version, winning the Oscar for Best Director. The movie also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Dunne), Best Supporting Actor (Bellamy), Best Screenplay and Best Editing.
Jerry Warriner (Grant) comes home, supposedly from a two-week trip to Florida to catch his wife, Lucy (Dunne), out all night with her lecherous music teacher (Alexander D’Arcy) , claiming his car broke down after attending one of his students’ junior prom. Mutually deciding their marriage means nothing if they can’t trust each other, they decide to start divorce proceedings. A judge grants them a divorce decree, to become final in 90 days, and gives custody of their dog, Mr. Smith (Skippy) , to Lucy, with liberal visitation rights for Jerry. Over the next three months, both become involved in mismatched relationships with other people, each attempting to sabotage each other’s romances, and finally ending up in separate rooms at a remote country lodge, as the final hour of their marriage approaches.
The Awful Truth was the first of three films Grant and Dunne made together, followed by the screwball comedy My Favorite Wife (1940), produced by McCarey, and the sentimental Penny Serenade (1941). McCarey and Grant made two more pictures together: Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) and An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake of the director’s classic romance Love Affair (1939), which starred Dunne and Charles Boyer. McCarey also produced and wrote the story for My Favorite Wife .
McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich years later that much of what ended up in the movie was based on his own life, particularly experiences with his wife, although he was quick to point out that the infidelity was imaginary and not autobiographical. One detail from his life that crept into the script: After leaving the law profession (but prior to entering the film industry), McCarey had failed miserably at a mining venture. In The Awful Truth, Cary Grant tries to dump a failed Pennsylvania coal mine on his wife’s new suitor, an Oklahoma rancher played by Ralph Bellamy in a wonderfully over-the-top performance that earned him his Oscar nomination.
According to Rob Nixon, McCarey preferred to build his scripts as a series of occurrences around the slightest of storylines, rather than starting from solid plot construction, He called this his theory of the “ineluctability of incidents,” the idea that “if something happens, some other thing inevitably flows from it. Like night follows day, events are linked together.” His preference to work with a series of incidents that “succeed and provoke each other” opened up his process to valuable improvisation on the set.
Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, wrote; “in The Awful Truth, Its comedy is almost purely physical – with only here and there a lone gag to interrupt the pure poetry of motion, yet its unapologetic return to the fundamentals of comedy seems, we repeat, original and daring…a comedy in which speech is subsidiary”
Skippy, the biggest dog in pictures since Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie, is the wire-haired terrier who almost stole the show playing the Warriner’s dog, Mr. Smith. The peppy pooch appeared under his own name as Nick (William Powell) and Nora Charles’ (Myrna Loy) pet, Asta, in several of the Thin Man movies. He also played George in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Mr. Atlas (credited as Skippy) in Topper Takes a Trip (1939).
In 1996, the film was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board to be one of the motion pictures preserved on the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Chuck Wiebe teaches Film Studies at the Pittsburgh Campus of the University of Phoenix. He has published over 60 articles on film as the National DVD Movies Examiner on www.examiner.com . His work has also appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He holds a BA in Fine Art from West Virginia University, and an MA in Art History from The Pennsylvania State University. He also studied at the University of Rome, Italy. He believes that film is the most influential art form of our time.
Check out our article about the Cary Grant movie Bringing Up Baby: Leopards and Actors and Cary Grant