In accepting his “Best Director” Oscar statuette for The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey famously opined that Academy voters had given him the award for the wrong film (1). In McCarey’s estimation, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, Paramount), the director’s other 1937 release, rated not only as the superior film, but also as the best of his career – a view that the filmmaker would continue to hold throughout the remainder of his life (2). Audiences, however, seemed to concur with the members of the Academy, making The Awful Truth “one of the critical and commercial hits of the decade”, and Make Way for Tomorrow, a box office failure (3). Subsequent generations have also demonstrated a preference for The Awful Truth, which has long occupied a near unassailable position within the canon of classical screen comedy; no doubt many spectators today would agree with Stanley Cavell’s assertion that The Awful Truth is “the best, or the deepest, of the comedies of remarriage”, even without his qualification, “on certain screenings” (4). By comparison, McCarey’s downbeat favourite remained unavailable domestically and was largely unseen for decades, until its extraordinarily belated home-video release last year (5).

The source of The Awful Truth’s historic popularity is not difficult to discern: McCarey’s screwball comedy certainly ranks among the funniest and most purely pleasurable comedic offerings of Hollywood’s “golden age”, with its extremely attractive leads Irene Dunne and Cary Grant delivering two of their signature performances. The third and by far the best-known adaptation of Arthur Richman’s eponymous 1922 play, McCarey’s often improvised instantiation opens with Grant’s Jerry Warriner attempting to “pull a fast one on his wife” by tanning at the Gotham Athletic Club in lieu of vacationing in Florida. Jerry thereafter returns home, sporting a basket of “California” oranges and a group of friends from the club, only to discover that his wife Lucy (Dunne) is unexpectedly absent – and has been so since the delivery of the previous day’s mail. As Jerry insists that his wife must have gone to visit her Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham), the latter enters the frame behind him, and he twitters his fingers uncomfortably upon discovering Patsy on the other end of his gesture. Grant relents in his storytelling with a deflated, punchline introduction of “Aunt Patsy”.

Consequently, Lucy arrives home, clad in shimmering evening wear and accompanied by her music teacher, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy). Lucy explains that their automobile broke down and that they were forced to spend the night in a rundown inn, an excuse that Jerry later argues “people stopped believing before cars started breaking down”. As the sequence unfolds, Grant and Dunne each deliver superlative one-liners, many taking the “Continental” Armand as their object of ridicule. For example, Jerry responds to Armand’s boast that he has “never been caught in a scandal” with the off-handed, “haven’t been caught?” Lucy, on the other hand, innocently defends her companion by interjecting “that’s right, Armand, no one could ever accuse you of being a great lover”.

The Awful Truth proves both adult in its insinuating sense-of-humour, and distinctively verbal in its comedic orientation – despite a pair of memorable pratfalls that reconfirm Grant’s acrobatic aptitude. While this verbal mode is perhaps better associated with the subsequent comic pairings of Grant and director Howard Hawks, it remains to be said that it was The Awful Truth that launched the witty, urbane Grant persona that Hawks would later reuse for his own archetypal “comedy of remarriage”, His Girl Friday (1940, Columbia), and that it was upon McCarey himself that the star’s subsequent image was modelled (6). (Hawks not only borrowed Grant’s caustic attitude and The Awful Truth’s remarriage narrative structure for his soft “remake” of the McCarey classic, he also brought back Grant’s overmatched romantic rival in The Awful Truth, Ralph Bellamy, for the purpose of largely reprising his earlier role.)

McCarey, however, brings far more to The Awful Truth than his sharp wit and ever assured direction of actors. The Awful Truth represents one of the period’s most elegant modulations of the sound film form, and is an exceedingly well-directed work of classical motion picture art. McCarey makes expert use off-screen space in his set-ups: for example, the camera refuses to follow Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy) and Aunt Patsy into the elevator, a tilt up to the elevator dial and then back down to the opening doors revealing the characters returning to the same floor. In this case, his simple set of echoing camera movements gracefully tells the story of their decision to return to Patsy’s apartment, eliminating perfunctory dialogue while emphasising the speed by which they come to their decision. On another key occasion, McCarey transforms the loud off-screen thuds of Jerry and Armand’s fight into a sound-specific comic gag, with the noises covering over Lucy, Dan and Mrs. Leeson’s (Esther Dale) banal on-camera exchange – without mother or son realising the embarrassing source of the thumps.

McCarey likewise makes memorable use of his film’s non-human stars: a cuckoo clock and the canine Mr. Smith (Asta). Regarding the latter, McCarey relies on the animal’s playful interactions with Jerry and Lucy to produce the punchlines to a number of the film’s delayed gags. McCarey also uses the animal to facilitate the construction of interior spaces, with the dog’s glances frequently prompting match-cuts (thereby replacing human agency in these instances). The clock, on the other hand, in addition to repeating a structural motif, offers a humorous visual echo of the plot of Jerry and Lucy’s final night as a married couple, while also affording the director the opportunity to introduce a piece of trick cinematography into his otherwise special effects-free work.

In this final cuckoo clock dominated passage, Jerry and Lucy do manage to avoid the permanent separation that their suspicions and Jerry’s lack of “faith” have threatened (7). While it has been long clear to the viewer, by this point, that Jerry and Lucy belong together, it must be acknowledged that McCarey does presage this discovery by an entreatment to his spectators to believe in Lucy, to trust that she is innocent, and that she has been, as she says, “caught in a truth”. The Awful Truth’s rules for marriage, in other words, replay themselves on the level of the viewer’s engagement with the narrative. On this basis alone, in the view of this writer, The Awful Truth would rank among the finest films ever to have earned its filmmaker a “Best Director” trophy, even without adding considerations of the film’s elegant use of off-camera space, its extraordinary comic performances and the sterling wit of its dialogue as noted above. When these additional elements are considered, The Awful Truth becomes amongst the greatest films to ever to win its director the aforementioned prize. In short, The Awful Truth does what Hollywood once did best – as well as any film ever would.

And yet, McCarey seems to have been right. With Make Way for Tomorrow, he attempted something that Hollywood almost never tried: he would offer an honest, and therefore pessimistic, take on the existential estrangement and mistreatment of elderly parents by their grown children. As a result, the film’s historical neglect is not in the least surprising, nor is its more recent advocacy by a number of influential critics, including the late Robin Wood, along with its 2010 inclusion in the National Film Registry (a mere fourteen years after The Awful Truth) (7). If it has become not only possible but popular – in the smallest of circles – to insist that Make Way for Tomorrow is the better film, as this author likewise would, it remains to be said that the picture’s “Best Director” loss to a film as great as The Awful Truth represents the smallest injustice in film history.

Endnotes

  1. Wes D. Gehring, Leo McCarey: From Marx to McCarthy, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2005, p. 156.
  2. Gehring, p. 141.
  3. Gehring, pp. 141-42.
  4. Stanley Cavell, The Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1981, p. 231.
  5. Internationally, Make Way for Tomorrow has had a more substantial following over time. Most notably, Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu reworked McCarey’s film as Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953), producing one of the confirmed masterpieces of world cinema.
  6. Gehring, p. 152.
  7. In so locating the basis for the sacrament in mutual belief or trust, the Roman Catholic McCarey refreshes a similar emphasis from the much earlier separation narratives of Cecil B. DeMille and Hawks in Adam’s Rib (1923, Paramount) and Fig Leaves (1926, Fox) respectively. Particularly notable in this instance is DeMille, who introduced the remarriage narrative nearly two decades before The Awful Truth with, among others, the Gloria Swanson-vehicle, Don’t Change Your Husband (1919, Paramount). Swanson, it remains to be noted, appeared in McCarey’s own more dramatic precursor to The Awful Truth, the pre-Hays Code Indiscreet (1931, Paramount), which accordingly offers a missing link between the two remarriage cycles.
  8. Robin Wood, “Make Way for Tomorrow”, Sight and Sound vol. 17, no. 8, August 2007, 25.

The Awful Truth (1937 USA 92 mins)

Prod Co: Columbia Pictures Prod, Dir: Leo McCarey Scr: Viña Delmar, Leo McCarey [uncredited], from the play by Arthur Richman play adapted by Dwight Taylor Phot: Joseph Walker Ed: Al Clark Art Dir: Lionel Banks and Stephen Goossón Mus: Ben Oakland

Cast: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D’Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont, Esther Dale, Joyce Compton

About The Author

Michael J. Anderson is a joint PhD candidate in Film Studies and the History of Art at Yale University, where he is doing his dissertation on the early films of Howard Hawks. In the past, he has written Cinémathèque Annotations on Hawks’ Tiger Shark and Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm. He is also the proprietor of the film weblogs Tativille and Ten Best Films.