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30 October 2016

The Awful Truth (1937)

Directed by: Leo McCarey
Starring: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, 
Ralph Bellamy, Robert Allen, 
Alexander D'Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, 
Esther Dale, Joyce Compton, 
Molly Lamont, Skippy
After watching Arabesque, and missing Cary Grant mightily in the film, I decided I had to watch a Grant movie to make up the Grant-sized hole in my heart (with all due apologies to Jerry Pinto from whom I shamelessly plagiarized this phrase). And so, looking through YouTube, when I came across a movie I hadn't watched before, it seemed like Fate, or Cary, was looking out for me. (Let's just say 'Cary', shall we? I enjoy my delusions.) 

Now, I like screwball comedies, and Hollywood had turned out some excellent ones. 'Screwball comedies' is a genre of films that are marked by fast-paced repartee, farcical situations and mistaken identities, and frequently, plot lines that include love and marriage. Movies such as Holiday, Monkey Business, It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You, etc., are examples of the genre. Then, there's a sub-genre known as the 'comedy of remarriage' [a phrase coined by philosopher Stanley Cavell in his book, The Pursuit of Happiness]. The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Mr & Mrs Smith and this one, The Awful Truth, all fall under this umbrella, where the story, turning the traditional comedy (which ends in marriage and implies a 'happily-ever-after') on its head, begins with the leads having separated – whether break-up or divorce – and works its way through to the denouement. This genre also had an inbuilt advantage in the time of the Hays Code: it could get away with more flirtation, more explicit dialogue, and not just the implication, but the depiction of a sexual relationship without upsetting morals.
 
Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) is urgently getting a tan at his club. Why? Because he's doesn't want his wife to know that his supposed solo trip to Florida hadn't actually taken place. 'What wives don't know won't hurt them,' he tells a friend. After spending a couple of hours tanning, Jerry whisks his friends off home. He has a present for his wife a basket of oranges, all the way from Florida. Only, Mrs Warriner is not home when they reach there. But Mr Smith (Skippy) is.  
His friends are curious – the mail hasn't been opened. Where would Lucy be? Perhaps she would return looking as well as Jerry did. The implication is not lost on Jerry, who though discomfited, laughs it off – he had often told Lucy that she should get out more. She must have gone to her Aunt Patsy's. 
Dear Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham) is looking for Lucy too. They had had a date that morning. Just then, Lucy (Irene Dunne) arrives, looking gorgeous in an evening gown and fur coat. (It is mid-afternoon.)  
Following her is Armand Duvalle (Alexander D'Arcy), her vocals teacher. Damn. Things go downhill in a hurry. Their arrival – and excuse for their tardiness – raises several eyebrows. While Jerry tries to put on a good face on things, and Armand praises his 'continental mind', the reactions of their friends puts Lucy on the defensive.  
It is clear that Jerry's harbouring suspicions of infidelity, and Lucy is stung, feeling guilty even when she's done nothing wrong. But how does one defend the truth? Jerry has lost all faith, he claims; he cannot believe in anything anymore. Uh-huh, says Lucy as she takes a look at Jerry's gift. 

One thing leads to another, and before they know it, they are in court, filing for divorce and fighting over their 'assets'. Which in this case, is Mr Smith. The judge wisely leaves the decision to Mr Smith who, thanks to some conniving by Lucy, 'chooses' her. Poor Jerry is forced to petition the judge for visitation rights. 

Lucy moves into a new apartment with Aunt Patsy and stays moping in the apartment. [She's dressed awfully well, though, for someone who's moping.]  
The divorce will become final in another 60 days, and then she'll be free. In the meantime, 'Look at the rain,' says Aunty. 'Why? Is it doing anything but falling? queries Lucy, morosely. 'I don't think so. Nothing unusual ever happens around here,' responds Aunty, in the same vein. She is bored, and has been for a month. If she knew she was going to be buried side by side with her, she tells Lucy, she would never have agreed to move into this apartment. Aunty begs Lucy to go out and get a life, but when Lucy demurs, goes out herself – and runs into a Dan Gleeson (Ralph Bellamy), who's 'visiting from Oklahoma'. She drags him back to the flat and introduces him to Lucy. 
Dan is an oil man, visiting the city with his mother. He has wanted to be introduced to Lucy for the longest of time, and Lucy is ripe for a rebound. Perfect

Er... not quite. Lucy may have forgotten, but it is Jerry's day for visiting Mr Smith. He walks in, and takes an unholy amusement in Dan's discomfiture. So he is dashedly cheery with Mr Smith, and ensures that Dan and Lucy cannot have a quiet conversation. While Lucy is over-affectionate with Dan, hanging on his every word. Finally, Jerry succeeds in driving Lucy out of her own apartment.

Dan has his doubts about Jerry's relationship with Lucy, but he's besotted with her and cannot think straight. A fact that his mother notices. She's not too pleased. Neither is Aunt Patsy, much to Lucy's surprise. Aunty is aghast that Lucy is being silly; falling for the wrong man on the rebound is bound to end in disaster, she warns her niece. The only reason she brought Dan back to the apartment was so they would have a man to escort them on an evening out.    
And while Lucy is trying hard to convince her aunt (and herself) that she really, really, really likes Dan (and really, really, really hates her ex-husband), Jerry is finding solace in Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), a night club performer he just met that night. In fact, they are sitting together when Lucy walks in to the club with Dan. Jerry can't resist. He manages to impose on Dan's sense of southern hospitality. ('Are you sure we aren't intruding?' he asks a flabbergasted Dan, who isn't quite sure he invited them to join Lucy and him in the first place.) Lucy, at first uncomfortable, takes a wicked delight in watching Dixie Belle perform (and in Jerry's discomfiture)
'I guess it was easier for her to change her name than for her entire family to change theirs,' she says, getting a bit of her own back. [Dixie Lee had informed them that she had changed her name in order to avoid embarrassing her family.] But Nemesis is waiting just around the corner
Jerry manages to get even without even trying, his initial sadness giving way to an impish delight as he watches her mortified expression. 
Dan is also interested in a coal mine that is jointly owned by the Warriners; Jerry offers to bring up the papers related to the mine, and so lands up the next morning. He manages to irritate Lucy and make Dan uncomfortable again. As they look over the details, they are interrupted by the arrival of Dan's mom (Esther Dale). She is surprised to see Jerry there, because while she was at lunch, she had met some people who knew the Warriners before their divorce. And while they all agreed Jerry was a 'gentleman', one of them, says Mrs Leeson, why, she came right out and talked about Lucy and her French singing master.
If she hadn't been a lady, why, she would have 'slapped her face'! ('Well, why didn't you?' snaps Lucy waspishly.) Dan is upset, and Mrs Leeson, who is not very happy with her son's entanglement with Lucy, finally bursts out with her big news – that woman had suggested that Jerry had allowed Lucy to file for divorce in order to protect her reputation. Can Jerry clarify? Of course he would be glad to, says Jerry. Why, Lucy had never caused him a moment's grief; he was unworthy to even kiss the hem of her dress. He holds forth quite a bit and Lucy is touched at his quick defence of her honour, when she notices something.
Though exasperated by his behaviour, she can't help laughing at Jerry's antics, nor can she stop comparing him to kind, good, dull Dan. Finally, however, she realises that she is still in love with her 'crazy lunatic' husband, and because Jerry does all these crazy things, she thinks hopes that it's because he cares about her as well. And because she's too cowardly to face Dan in person, writes him a 'Dear John' letter, which she requests her aunt to deliver. ('With pleasure,' says the redoubtable old lady.)
Lucy then calls Armand home, not only to apologise for Jerry's behaviour the previous day, but to request him to talk to Jerry about that fateful evening. Armand is more than willing, only he hopes that Jerry will not shoot him. Just as they are talking, Jerry pops in to apologise for the previous evening.
Armand quickly takes refuge in Lucy's bedroom even as Aunt Patsy helps Lucy hide Armand's hat. Just as Jerry apologises and she happily accepts an offer to go on a drive with him, comes another knock on their door – it's Dan and his mother. 
Not wanting to get Lucy into more trouble, Jerry too goes into the bedroom to hide.  
Now Lucy has one ex-lover (purported), one ex-husband, and one current fiancé (and her mother-in-law-to-be) all in the same house. The situation is just getting ready to explode
 
What's worse is that the 90 days are almost up, and there are other complications.
What's Lucy to do  

The rest of the movie is a series of madcap escapades as Lucy, wanting to reconcile with Jerry, tries her best to break up Jerry's engagement. (Just watch Jerry's look of horror turn into amusement as he realises where Lucy got her idea from.)   
Oh, why haven't I watched this before? I giggled my way through the movie, just as much at Grant's and Dunne's non-verbal reactions as I did at their dialogues. This is an absurd farce, but oh, such an enchanting (and endearing) one.

One of the definitive and classic screwball comedies of all time, The Awful Truth earned director Leo McCarey a well-deserved Academy Award (one of the few, very few Oscars given to comedies in any category) and Irene Dunne, one of her five nominations. McCarey may have felt that the Academy had honoured him for the 'wrong film' [he preferred his other 1937 release Make Way for Tomorrow] but generations of film-lovers disagree. The Awful Truth was both critically acclaimed and a box-office success, deservedly earning its place among the pantheon of great films from Hollywood's Golden Age. The film owed much to its director's caustic wit, and his adaptation of the source material – Arthur Richman's 1922 play of the same name – is considered the best.  
Having two talented leads – Irene and Cary Grant – certainly helped, as did that elusive element called 'chemistry' between them.

Like all comedies of remarriage, this one too sparkled with sophisticated wit, moving seamlessly from scene to witty scene. Distinctly verbal in its humour as many films of this genre are, but also mining Grant's capacity for physical comedy, the comic timing between Dunne and Grant was impeccable as they spar with the comfort of old foes. After all, a known enemy, and all that. When Dunne apologises for being away from home because 'the car broke down' [and they were forced to spend the night in a down-and-out inn], Grant ripostes: 'People stopped believing in that excuse before cars started breaking down.” 
 
Grant's urbane, witty portrayal would become so much part of his persona that he would reprise it in later films. Take for instance the scene where Grant's character is introduced to his ex-wife's new beau, Dan. 'I'm so glad to know you,' says the kindly country gent. Grant/Jerry takes that polite statement and has fun with it. 'How can you be glad to know me? I know how I'd feel if I was sitting with a girl and her husband walked in.'  
Or the one after he has 'cleared' Lucy's name; exasperated with his play-acting, she kicks him surreptitiously as he exits, and Jerry, hat in hand, eyes raised piously to the ceiling, pleads with Dan to '...take care good care of Lucy, and I hope the three of you [Dan, his mother and Lucy] will be very happy where the West begins.' You can see the dawning horror in Lucy's eyes when she realises what her future is going to look like.

The Awful Truth highlighted Grant's inclusion of his physicality in his acting. In the nightclub scene, where Jerry runs into Lucy and Dan, he's thrilled when Dan announces that he was known to be a great dancer. Having egged Dan to take Lucy to the dance floor, Grant proceeds to watch them morosely. McCarey cuts from Bellamy and Dunne back to Grant, whose reaction shots are priceless
There is shock, there is awe, there's unholy glee; then, he stands up, picks up his chair, and moves closer, crosses his legs and, after paying the orchestra leader to play an encore, relaxes in impish delight. The more mortified Lucy gets, the more delighted Jerry is. And it's not just the expressions. It is the way he straightens up from a slouch, in the little wriggle of his shoulders as he settles into his chair, the liquid way he springs up to switch chairs, and the manner in which he crosses one leg over the other - it's a master class in performing. 
Or the scene where he's behind the door as Dan walks in, apologising for his mother's suspicions, and begging Lucy to give him one kiss to prove she's not angry. [Dan reads her a poem he's written for her, and Jerry's reactions are priceless. 

In a more subtle scene, watch him try the wrong hat on.  
Grant's unease doesn't show anywhere in the film, but the fact of the matter is that he was deeply anxious about McCarey's on-the-spot improvisations. Grant himself liked to work from a script and this laissez-faire approach did not endear the director to him. He actually asked the studio to release him from his contract, and later, wanted to switch roles with Bellamy. But luckily for us, the studio refused. Grant-as-Jerry is urbane, suave, charismatic, mischievous, vulnerable, comic, daft, and just plain scrumpilicious.

Irene Dunne, picking up a nomination for Best Actress, was superb in the role of Lucy who, too late, realises that she has never stopped loving her husband after all. She's also very good in the comic scenes, her expressions and her gestures making you laugh despite the outward seriousness of the scene. The scene where she invites Armand home so he can convince Jerry of the truth, only to have Jerry arrive soon after, followed by Dan and his mother, was comic gold. 
 
Or the time when she decides to torpedo her ex-husband's current engagement by imitating his ex-belle's dance routine. 

Dunne often looks like there's a bubble of laughter welling up inside her, and the contrast between her oh-so-upper-crust exterior and her uninhibited persona is wickedly delightful.
She plays her Lucy with all the snap and crackle that the part requires, and is therefore the perfect foil to Grant's antics. As she has herself noted, 'I appeared with many leading men,” but working with Cary Grant was different from working with other actors—he was much more fun. I think we were a successful team because we enjoyed working together tremendously, and that pleasure must have shown through onto the screen.” It definitely did. They looked like they were enjoying a private joke in which we, the audience, were invited to join in.
Ralph Bellamy generally played the role of our own Ashok Kumar – if there was a triangle, he lost the girl. He too picked up a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dan, the wealthy oil man from Oklahoma. At one point, he suspects that his fiancĂ©e still has feelings for her ex-husband. Lucy protests: 'Like him? You saw the way I treated him!' And Dan responds: 'That's what I mean.' Like Grant, Bellamy too was nonplussed by the director's style of working. 'There wasn't any script,' he wrote years later.

He had once come on the sets to find Irene Dunne playing the piano, and McCarey asked Bellamy if he could sing. 'Can't get from one note to another,' replied Bellamy promptly. "Great!' was the response, and he was asked to sing Home on the range while Dunne played the piano. When McCarey called 'Cut', the actors turned towards the camera to see the director doubled up with laughter. 

The Awful Truth moves quickly, one comic scene dissolving into another, and perhaps it is McCarey's improvisation that leaves us with the impression that nothing is rehearsed. Typically, he gave his actors the outline of a scene and let them work out their own dialogues. Guess what? It worked. There's a scene where a disillusioned Dan leaves Lucy, telling her, 'I certainly learnt about women from you.' Whereupon, Aunt Patsy gives him Lucy's letter breaking things off between them, saying, 'And here's your diploma.' We, the audience, are so often 'in' on the joke, and so complicit in the madcap escapades of the estranged husband and wife pair, as they try to sabotage the other's romantic relationship so they can reconcile. 

Along with the leads, mention must be made of Joyce Compton, Esther Dale, and Cecil Cunningham. Not to forget Skippy
And the clock. They play such important parts. Oh, why are you still reading? Go watch! [And do watch more than once – the visual/verbal humour is easy to miss the first time around.] They really don't make them like this anymore!

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