THE AWFUL TRUTH: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures, 1937) Criterion

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne spar majestically in Leo McCarey’s quintessential romantic screwball, The Awful Truth (1937); a crisp and congenial charmer with plenty of caustic wit peppered in along the way. It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that the picture accredited with molding the persona we fondly think of today as ‘being’ Cary Grant is the one Grant himself did not want to make. Initially, gung-ho about the project, Grant’s enthusiasm quickly cooled when McCarey began the arduous process of chronically deviating from Viña Delmar’s screenplay, preferring improvisation to all those words on the page. According to surviving memos, Grant fought like a wildcat to be released from his Columbia Picture’s contract just weeks into the shoot; even proposing a truce with he and co-star, Ralph Bellamy switching roles. Mercifully, in the era of ironclad indentures, studio’s chief Harry Cohn, affectionately described by Orson Welles as a bit of a vulgarian, held his star’s feet to the fire. While hard feelings between McCarey and Grant persisted daily on the set, Grant steadily came to respect McCarey’s unconventional work ethic, diametrically opposed to his own. Indeed, the rushes were proof in the proverbial pudding. McCarey’s almost mythical ‘light’ touch was working overtime.
In hindsight, The Awful Truth can clearly be seen as one of the thirties’ most sardonic and sparkling rom/coms; pitting Dunne’s spry and joyously unhinged society maven, Lucy Warriner, against her tenderly angst-ridden hubby, Jerry who, after all, kicked off their unhappiness by returning – supposedly from a business trip to Florida – with a plush fruit basket stocked with ‘California’ oranges for his sweetheart. Exactly where dear ole Jer’ was is a matter left to providence and somewhat unwise speculation. In the Warriner’s implied ‘open marriage’ Jerry jealously suspects his wife has been playing the field with her slick music instructor, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy). Not truth…perhaps. Arguably, the template for such tales of ‘re-marriage’ remain Shakespeare’s forte; the Bard’s rhyming couplets replaced herein with delicious barbs and the verbal spank of rocky and riotous male/female folly. Consider the superb wryness as Lucy’s beefy Aunt Patsy (the sublime raconteur, Cecile Cunningham) responds to the wounded notions of bimbo Texas oilman, Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy) - whose panged expression after suspecting Lucy of infidelity with her ex - leads to his hypothesis, “I sure learned a lot about women from you” to which Patsy replies, “Here’s your diploma!”, handing him Lucy’s already eloquently composed letter of rejection. The Awful Truth is teeming with such gloriously understated nuggets of truth and, of course, the winning on-screen chemistry of its two sexy costars.
Irene Dunne today is an actress who does not rate nearly the exposure she deserves; the lean Kentuckian firecracker proving time and again her adornment to Broadway and films was more far-reaching than mere sex appeal. She once claimed to have drifted in, then out, of acting, adding “acting isn’t everything. Living is.” Adding an ‘e’ to her surname, and blessed with a lithe soprano voice, Dunne bounced from popular plays to light opera, transposing her formidable talents to film as a contract player for RKO and appearing to such great effect in a string of hits, including Back Street (1932), Magnificent Obsession (1935) Theodora Goes Wild, and, Show Boat (both made in 1936). Arguably, it is for her appearance in 1939’s Love Affair, also for Leo McCarey (later, to be remade by him as the even more memorable, An Affair to Remember, 1957) that won Dunne ever-lasting fame. Already in her mid-thirties, Dunne’s career continued to pivot between sincere melodramas (Penny Serenade, 1941; The White Cliffs of Dover, 1944; I Remember Mama, 1948) and jocular comedies (My Favorite Wife, 1940; It Grows on Trees, 1952 – her last movie). In The Awful Truth she is, quite simply, gorgeous, smart and full of sass; a real woman for any man bright enough to acknowledge such gifts.
Dunne’s perfect counterpoint is unquestionably Cary Grant (with whom she was repeatedly teamed) but who only a few short years before was still struggling to find an on-screen persona to match his flawless male beauty. A former tumbler in a traveling circus, Grant’s startling good looks came to the attention of the ribald Mae West who demanded he be cast opposite her in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong. Grant always resented the implication West ‘discovered’ him; a claim repeatedly made by the actress in later years, despite Grant having already appeared in eight movies without her help. Perhaps, Grant had a point. Although women in the audience took notice of his sex appeal, it was not until Leo McCarey coaxed a decidedly tongue-in-cheek charisma to the forefront, never to be taken quite so seriously, that Grant’s diamond-in-the-rough emerged perfectly polished as the Cary Grant we generally know and love today. The Awful Truth is truly Cary Grant’s debut as a star of the first magnitude; his alter ego – Jerry Warriner – stumbling into one idiotic mishap after the next; Grant’s priceless and self-effacing expressions after being given the wrong bowler, gently riding down around his ears, or his even more obtuse bewilderment, unintentionally disrupting Lucy’s music recital with a thud – Grant, repeatedly taking prat falls in a seemingly desperate effort to keep his seat on a very slippery chair, are iconic bits of business for which the star was born.
The Awful Truth begins with the gauntlet cast down. Jerry Warriner has just returned from a business trip to Florida. Or, at least, this is what he has told his wife, Lucy. But exactly where Jerry has been remains open for discussion, particularly as he has brought back a fruit basket containing California oranges. Arriving home direct from his gentlemen’s club, after applying an artificial tan, Grant is rather unsettled to learn from housemaid, Celeste (Kathryn Curry) that Lucy has yet to return from a previous night’s festivities. Only the couple’s beloved wire-haired terrier, Mr. Smith (The Thin Man’s beloved ‘Asta’ on loan from MGM) is eager to greet Jerry. For the rest, Jerry is subjected to some curious innuendoes dropped by his rather fair-weather flock of friends, including the Barnsleys (Wyn Cahoon and Scott Kolk) and Frank Randall (Robert Allen).  Is it true? Has Lucy been ‘stepping out’ while her husband’s away? Jerry absolutely refuses to entertain such a notion until Aunt Patsy arrives unaccompanied. Jerry had hoped to discover his wife had spent the weekend with Patsy at her cabin. Alas, Jerry is chagrined when Lucy enters the room in a decidedly sumptuous frock and fur on the arm of Armand Duvalle, her music instructor. Jerry is immediately suspicious and takes an instant dislike to Duvalle. Clearing the room, Jerry and Lucy verbally spar. She discovers the California orange in his fruit basket and realizes in as much as she may not have been waiting at home for his return, he has not exactly been honest with her about his whereabouts either.
Jerry threatens divorce and Lucy, unwilling to budge in her stubborn resolve, reasons ‘two’ can play at the same game. Okay, so she’ll give Jerry precisely what he wants. Although the couple’s attorney (Edmund Mortimer) cautions against such hastiness, his off-side and fairly nasty admonishments of his own wife (Sarah Edwards) riotously contradict his advice to Lucy about “marriage” being “…a beautiful thing.” At the couple’s divorce hearing, the Judge (Paul Stanton) is forced to adjudicate the matter of who will get ‘Mr. Smith’. Lucy tricks the dog into favoring her by deviously wiggling its favorite chew toy under her fur wrap. The judge concurs and grants custody of the animal to Lucy, leaving Jerry alone and friendless. Lucy’s prospects rebound almost immediately; a chance meeting in an elevator with Texas oilman, Daniel Leeson, leading to a whirlwind romance of sorts. Actually, Dan and Lucy’s affair is rather passionless, considering his cornfed views on life and love; also, the persistent nattering of his domineering mother (Esther Dale) – too quick to judge Lucy as decidedly ‘the wrong type’ for her darling son. Nevertheless, Dan proposes.
To offset and perhaps even unsettle their unhappiness, Jerry inveigles himself in a ‘romance’ with nightclub chanteuse, Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), inviting Lucy and Dan to partake of his bliss after they accidentally arrive at the same club together. Hilariously, Dixie Belle’s act borders on crude burlesque, her gossamer gown repeatedly blown over her waist by an updraft as she innocently chimes “My dreams are all gone with the wind.” To quell rumors Mrs. Leeson has overheard about Lucy being a wanton woman – gossip she is all too eager to embrace – Lucy asks Jerry to set the record straight. His declaration is bigheaded, meant more to unsettle than calm Mrs. Leeson’s suspicions. Determined to unearth the truth for himself, Jerry bursts into Armand Duvalle’s atelier expecting to find his ex locked in her music teacher’s arms. Instead, he discovers Duvalle at the piano and Lucy in the middle of a recital, playing to a packed audience. Inadvertently, and rather sheepishly, Jerry disrupts the performance by falling off his chair; Lucy, more mildly amused than irritated.
Later, Lucy and Aunt Patsy share a good laugh about the events of that afternoon; Duvalle arriving to innocently congratulate her on the triumph. Nervously reconsidering her engagement to Dan, Lucy hopes Jerry will prevent her from going through with it. And, as fate would have it, Jerry is feeling rather apologetic and remorseful about his jealousies too. Unluckily, as his knock on the door has come at the most inopportune moment, Lucy is forced to hide Duvalle in her bedroom while she attempts to reconcile with Jerry. But Duvalle has left his bowler hat on the mantle, and Jerry, confusing it with his own, quickly discovers either his head has shrunk or the hat has grown since last he saw it. At this same juncture, there is another knock at Lucy’s door – Dan and Mrs. Leeson – come to make their own acts of contrition for suspecting the worst of her. Believing their love can never be again, and moreover, not wanting to disrupt her plans to remarry any further, Jerry valiantly ducks into the bedroom to spare Lucy any further embarrassment. Too bad he finds Duvalle already there; the two engaging in off-camera fisticuffs that end only when the pair burst forth from the bedroom in the midst of Lucy’s reconciliation with Dan. Believing this confirms his darkest suspicions about Lucy; Dan breaks off their engagement.
A short while later, Lucy reads in the society column that Jerry has become engaged to the wealthy socialite, Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). It cannot be. Especially since Lucy now knows Jerry is the only man for her. Inspiration flickers when Lucy pretends to be Jerry’s sister, crashing the Vance’s swank dinner party in a gaudy frock, crassly manhandling the English language, suggesting to all that their father never went to Princeton but was merely the groundskeeper there, and momentarily, accusing Mr. and Mrs. Vance (Robert Warwick, Mary Forbes) of pocketing her prized scarf. To cap off her rudeness, Lucy agrees to perform a number from a bawdy revue she supposedly did at one of ‘those gentleman clubs’; actually, a hilarious vamp of Dixie Lee’s ‘My Dreams Are Gone with The Wind’; shuffling and gyrating about, slapping her butt and singing horrendously off key. Jerry – utterly charmed, escorts Lucy from the premises. The couple hightail it to Aunt Patsy’s remote cabin in the woods, incurring the momentary wrath of the local police for blaring their car horn. As they are on the cusp of legalizing the terms of their divorce Lucy and Jerry stay in adjacent rooms; the door between them flimsily blowing in the evening breeze.  Jerry concludes he has behaved badly and Lucy, all set to re-embrace their marriage, happily forgives him; inviting Jerry to bed.
Most every Hollywood director worth his weight in raw celluloid made at least one screwball comedy throughout the mid to late 1930’s. But to my mind, none with such proficient comic timing as Leo McCarey in The Awful Truth; an awfully good rom/com with all pistons firing in unison. The classic screwball is usually imbued with a madcap heroine. The trick and the genius of Viña Delmar’s screenplay, unlike Arthur Richman’s play from which its inspiration hails, is that neither of the warring Warriners’ big screen reincarnations is a few bits short of a full box of kibble. In fact, the opposite is true.  Lucy is the more level-headed, even if stubborn pride proves her Achilles’ heel. And yet, it is Jerry’s silliness, derived mostly from sheer desperation to win his wife back, that adds ballast to the series of mishaps shortly to follow. In other screwball comedies the farce usually derives from some sort of cranial deficiency, quite often to plague the ‘hapless’ males populating these fun-filled milieus.  Better still, Lucy and Jerry’s plotting to wreck each other’s subsequent love affairs gets explored minus any sort of willful maliciousness.
Neither wants to deliberately wound the other’s feelings; merely, to wreck any chance for love to blossom outside their fractured marital bond. Patching the rift with pleasurable departures into pure slapstick, McCarey gently wends his way through some hysterical vignettes en route to the proverbial ‘happy ending’ – revealed with an almost ginger nudge and an ever so sly wink (the dancing figures on a German cuckoo clock hanging in Lucy’s bedroom depart from their usual chime – the man figure following the woman). It’s precisely this sort of subtlety that McCarey excels at, more potent than any overt expression of grand amour (no embrace of our two stars to cement what was always a foregone conclusion). And perhaps best of all, is McCarey’s connective tissue between such juicy highlights; the introspective moments built upon sincere drama, as compelling as the chuckles and smiles as our feuding ‘fren-enemies’ find love the second time around in their own heart’s desire and backyard no less. In the final analysis, The Awful Truth proves a peerless screwball comedy because it teems with tenderness. And yet, it neither relies upon nor sacrifices the crazy quilt of zany antics that make us giddy with excitement and laughter.
Criterion's new to Blu rendering of The Awful Truth is advertised as a ‘4K digital restoration’ and while decidedly improving on Sony’s old DVD from 2005, nevertheless falls just a tad short of expectations where contrast levels are concerned. In 1080p the B&W image sports a more handsome patina of film grain and considerably more detail throughout, free of age-related artifacts. But contrast is weak. There are no true blacks or pristine whites; only variations of tonal grey, Joseph Walker’s cinematography occasionally looking tired and pale. Yes, it bests the DVD. But it is not as impressive an upgrade. We get more information on all four sides and Criterion’s usual verve for a PCM mono soundtrack, freshly cleaned-up for this release. Criterion’s extras are rather thin: the hour-long Lux Radio adaptation the lengthiest of the lot. For the rest, there’s 15 minutes of reflection from film critic, David Cairns and another almost half-hour interview with critic, Gary Giddins. A rare 7-minute audio-only interview with Irene Dunne from 1978 is also included, as are liner notes from critic, Molly Haskell. Overall, nicely put together. I just wish there were more on McCarey, the making of the movie and certainly, Cary Grant. Oh well, can’t have everything. The Awful Truth is a brilliantly non-sensical rom/com with superb performances. Criterion’s Blu-ray will impress those who have never seen this movie before. I feel envious toward those about to experience this classy classic for the very first time. Enjoy! Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)