Sunday, May 8, 2011

THE AWFUL TRUTH | 1937 | Adults Become Grown-Ups

Leo McCarey.  Look him up.  Watch his stuff.  THE AWFUL TRUTH, DUCK SOUP, LAUREL AND HARDY, and more.  Do it.

On with the post...

THE AWFUL TRUTH begins with Jerry Warriner returning home to his wife after a trip to Florida (with a basket of California oranges to prove it).  Instead he finds an empty house.  Eventually his wife Lucy returns home after spending the night with her voice instructor (due to some car trouble).

We know that Jerry wasn't where he said he was, but we're not sure about Lucy's story, and so it feels like his guilty conscience is what makes it impossible for him to believe her innocence.  They quickly argue themselves into divorce.

In the divorce she gets custody of the dog, Mr. Smith, but Jerry gets visitation rights.  Which means he's around when Lucy begins dating Dan, an Oklahoma oilman (Ralph Bellamy).  Jerry does what he can to mess up the relationship.  Nothing mean-spirited, mostly he just pushes situations to prove the mismatch.  Of course witty dialog and hilarious hi-jinks ensue.  Just when it seems Jerry and Lucy are on track for the inevitable reunion, the voice instructor reappears resulting in both Dan and Jerry leaving Lucy (this is one of the best scenes of the film).

Next, Jerry takes up with an heiress who has "millions of dollars and no sense," and it's Lucy's turn to show him that the choice he's made isn't a good one, and get her husband back before their divorce is final.

As far as Classic Screwball characteristics, this one has cocktails, nightclubs, class conflict, urban living, and a pet dog as stand-in for child (linking romantic couple).  Contrary to the standard screwball anti-hero, Jerry is pretty capable in life (except, perhaps married life).  He is neither pauper, nor a self-made tycoon, nor inheritor of old money, but he is successful financially and socially.  The only time he gets flustered, frustrated, acts ridiculous and fails is when he's not being entirely straight with Lucy.  She challenges him in ways other women do not, and he needs it.  Without Lucy, he dates club singer and a wealthy heiress.  Each young and boring, and incapable of seeing his childish, manipulative ways.

And this is another way the film diverges from a classic, blue-blood screwball comedy; Lucy isn't a loopy, wealthy heiress.  She improves his life, not by insinuating herself into his life ala BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY but by leaving him.

Although she gets herself into some silly situations, Lucy is not a child-like romantic lead often found in screwball comedies.  The reason the two divorce is because she is an adult, and calls Jerry on his double-standard when he won't let her off the hook for being out all night with her voice coach, and refuses to acknowledge he has done the same thing to her (at least).

One other twist on the Classic Screwball Rulebook is that when Jerry is close to becoming engaged to the heiress, Lucy shows up to remind Jerry they belong together.  This is notable because it's usually the other way around.  Often it's the woman who has opportunity to marry wealth but chooses the heart and authenticity of the male lead.  Here, it's Lucy who puts her heart on her sleeve and makes a public plea for the guy's heart.  She does it by showing she's smarter and classier than the singer he'd been with before, yet a whole lot more fun and genuine than the heiress he's linked to at that moment.  She does it by wearing a trashy outfit, faking drunkenness, accusing an upper-crust family of stealing her purse, and performing a tawdry dance number while pretending to be Jerry's sister - effectively terrifying his potential new in-laws.

Like Jerry, she's neither this nor that.  The awful truth is that they're a perfect match.

Released: 1937(Oscar nomination, Best Picture)
Director: Leo McCarey (Oscar win)
Leads: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne (Oscar nomination), Ralph Bellamy (Oscar nomination)
Writer:  Arthur Richman (play), Vina Delmar (Oscar nomination, Best Adapted Screenplay), Sidney Buchman (uncredited)
Genre:  Romantic Comedy, Screwball