The Awful Truth

Studio: Criterion

Apr 24, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

A classic of the screwball comedy era, The Awful Truth is best known as the film that codified the persona of its male lead, Cary Grant: a dashing, debonair wise-ass whose charm was only enhanced by his loose-limbed dexterity and peevish irritability. It was also nominated for six Academy Awards, winning director Leo McCarey the first of his three Oscars. Eighty-one years later, it’s still fresh and hilarious.

The Awful Truth belongs to a subgenre of screwball comedies known as the “comedy of remarriage”, in which a feuding couple split up only to fall back in love over the course of the film via various zany misunderstandings and accidents. Grant would go on to be a staple of the remarriage comedy with classics like His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story and My Favorite Wife, the last of which would reunite him with his Awful Truth co-star Irene Dunne. Here, Grant and Dunne play Jerry and and Lucy Warriner, a wealthy New York couple who get mutually fed up with the other’s constant cheating and begin seeing other people while waiting out the sixty days until their divorce becomes legal. Shot in what was for the time a very uncommon improvisational style, The Awful Truth plays out less like a narrative and more like a series of vignettes about two characters who can’t get out of each other’s way. Modern improvisational comedy films tend to consist of pointing cameras at funny people standing next to each other and letting it roll until they run out of funny things to say. McCarey brings in The Awful Truth at a tight ninety-one minutes, and the inventiveness of his blocking and scene construction puts most modern comedy direction to shame, especially when one remembers it was all being written only hours before it was shot. Equally impressive is the film’s commitment to pratfalls and stunts. The natural escalation of comedic pratfalls over the decades has resulted in modern films making them brutally unrealistic, swapping out the stars for stunt performers who can take over-the-top hits and falls that would cripple or kill a person in reality. There’s a fantastic scene in The Awful Truth where Grant is tripped so badly that performs a handless cartwheel, pivoting on his head in a manner that is both bizarre and hilarious. Moments later he attempts to casually lean back in a chair, only for it to topple over and break, taking out a nearby table with it. Both gags clearly feature Grant himself performing them, giving them both an intimacy and a realism that you wouldn’t get if you were cutting to a stunt double who gets blown out a window or whatever.  

As sharp and engaging as McCarey’s direction is, what makes the film sing is its two leads, a pair of talented comic performers with excellent chemistry. As previously mentioned, Grant’s patented combination of self-satisfied slickness and petty foolishness first crystalized in this performance. There’s something about his mid-sentence chuckles and sarcastic delivery on lines like “Yes, that’s the only thing that’s bothering me”, that feel distinctly modern. Although she is given less opportunity for physical comedy - minus a ridiculous musical routine late in the film - Irene Dunne proves herself more than Grant’s equal. From the way she trails off when she’s nervous, to the way she can convey “go fuck yourself” with the scrunch of her nose, to the hilarious looks of pained resignation she delivers when dealing with her country-bred nouveau-riche oaf of a new boyfriend - played by Ralph Bellamy, the good-natured go-to for all nouveau-riche oafs - Dunne is a one-woman masterclass in breezy wit and charm. Her increasingly ridiculous array of fashionable hats doesn’t hurt either.

The new Criterion Blu-ray release of The Awful Truth includes an interview with critic Gary Giddens about director Leo McCarey as well as an excellent new video essay by David Cairns about the evolution of Grant’s screen persona leading up to his performance in the film. Other features include a 1978 audio interview with Dunne and a radio adaptation of the film starring Grant and Claudette Colbert.


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