Hidden Gem ‘The Awful Truth’ (1937)


Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are pasted on a promotional movie poster for their roles in “The Awful Truth”. The film was released Oct. 20, 1937.

By Syd Slobodnik , staff writer

Cary Grant began his film career in 1933. In just four years, he was in 28 films mostly featured as a secondary character behind several bigger stars like Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Frederic March. But his breakthrough film into superstardom came when he was cast as Jerry Warriner in Leo McCarey’s Depression-era screwball comedy “The Awful Truth” (1937). This role is said to have clearly defined the suave urbane Cary Grant persona, which he’d cultivate and refine during the rest of his career. The delightful Irene Dunne plays Jerry’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Lucy, who is about to get remarried to a wealthy Oklahoma oilman, Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy). 

McCarey mastered his comedy timing and comedic genre style directing early Laurel and Hardy two-reel shorts, a W. C. Fields comedy and “Duck Soup,” an early Marx Brothers movie. Using a screenplay by Vina Delmar based on a 1923 stage play by Arthur Richman, “The Awful Truth” was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture. McCarey won the Oscar for best director.  

McCarey was notoriously known for his improvisational style, sometimes ignoring his screenplay entirely. Working with Grant and Dunne brought out the best in his work. The film begins with the philandering Jerry in the Gotham Athletic Club seeking a quick tan under tanning lamps so he could hide from his wife Lucy. 

Yet, when he arrives home with a basketful of Florida oranges and three mutual friends, he’s surprised to see she hasn’t been home (she’d been out of town with her handsome singing instructor, Armand Duvalle). The potentially adulterous Mrs. Warriner claims his car broke down and they had to spend a night in a cheap inn/motel. Suspicions set in, and within days they file for divorce.

Now divorce, in reality, is not a funny subject matter — it breaks up families, divides possessions, investments, etc. and causes eternal resentments. Thankfully, the wealthy Warriners’ only possession of contention is over custody of their cute terrier “Mr. Smith,” who Lucy wins in the court’s decision. Jerry will receive visitation rights.

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When Lucy moves out to live with her Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham) in a fancy apartment she quickly learns a somewhat handsome bachelor, Daniel Leeson, lives just across the hall with his elderly mother. Daniel is immediately charmed by Lucy and love follows.

Veteran director Howard Hawks once said, “A good movie has three great scenes and no bad ones.” “The Awful Truth” has more than three great scenes and no bad ones. In one of these good ones, Jerry begins to show some jealousy. While waiting for their divorce to be finalized, Jerry meets Daniel and Lucy at a fashionable nightclub where he is sitting with a singer Dixie Belle Lee. He says to his ex, “So you two are going to be married … and going to be living in Oklahoma City. And if it should get dull, you can always go to Tulsa for the weekend.” Moments later Jerry talks Daniel into taking Lucy on the dance floor where the awkward Daniel makes a fool of them both.

In another wonderful slapstick scene, Jerry appears in Lucy’s apartment and has to hide behind the front door when Daniel shows up to recite a love poem he’s composed.  Lucy keeps whacking the door against the hiding Jerry and trying to keep Daniel from discovering him. Then Jerry tickles Lucy with a pencil as Daniels reads his sappy poem.

Later, after learning of Jerry’s engagement to a wealthy heiress, Barbara Vance, Lucy crashes a get-together at the Vance’s pretending to be Jerry’s sister Lola and sabotages the evening insulting her parents with her fake Southern accent and horrible manners. Dunne is outstanding and hilarious.

In one of the film’s finest scenes, Armand has visited Lucy after she fully realizes she still loves Jerry and the divorce is a mistake when Jerry appears at her front door. She makes Armand hide in her other room, but his black bowler hat is left out on a nearby table. Jerry enters wearing a similar hat and Lucy tries desperately to hide Armand’s hat. But the dog thinks she’s playing a game and keeps retrieving the hat. When Jerry decides to leave, he of course grabs the wrong hat and wonders why it doesn’t fit him. That’s when Daniel and his mother enter, discovering both men with Lucy and chaos ensues.

Film historian and director Peter Bogdanovich once noted, “The Awful Truth” is perhaps “the supreme example of light comedy that’s also human and mature in dealing with man’s often frivolous idiosyncrasies and foolishness.” So successful was the pairing of Grant and Dunne, within four years they’d appear together in “My Favorite Wife” (1940) and “Penny Serenade” (1941).