Monday 20 June 2016

The Awful Truth

In the absence of Antiques Roadshow last night (and the presence of a truly dismal footie game - France v Switzerland), I reached for a DVD I'd recently bought but hadn't got round to watching: The Awful Truth (1937) starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, with Ralph Bellamy, a strong support cast and a brilliant wire-haired fox terrier called Skippy playing 'Mr Smith'.
 It's a stagey affair, with a mostly predictable story arc - the Warriners (Grant and Dunne) are planning to divorce, but you know they won't and it's perfectly clear why (they love each other and are a perfect fit). A screwball 'comedy of remarriage', then, along the lines of The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, My Favourite Wife, etc. But what makes it a classic is the sheer quality of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne's performances - both of whom come across as phenomenally gifted natural comic actors at the top of their game.
 Oddly, however, this was not the case, and getting The Awful Truth made was an uncertain and often troubled process. Grant was unhappy with his part and with the director Leo McCarey's instinctive, improvisational way of working. At one point, Grant even wanted to switch roles with Ralph Bellamy, feeling he'd be more at home as the third point of the love triangle. Happily McCarey stood firm, stuck to his methods, and worked with Grant to create the comic persona that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. He even encouraged Grant to copy many of his own mannerisms (McCarey looked rather like Grant).
 The comic genius of Cary Grant, then, emerged from the messy business of lashing together a film with which he was by no means happy. None of which, of course, is apparent on the screen, where Grant seems to be sailing through a part that is second nature to him. As does Irene Dunne, who deservedly won an Oscar for a performance that is at least on a level with Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Rosalind Russsell in His Girl Friday - which is about as good as it gets. Dunne, however, did not for a long while see herself as a comic actress, preferring musicals and straight dramas. Indeed, she had made 20-odd films before she tackled her first comedy (Theodora Goes Wild) and found she rather enjoyed it. Incredibly, The Awful Truth was only her second comic role.
 It goes without saying that both leads are every bit as elegant as they are funny. The script - at least as long as Grant and Dunne are together - sparkles and crackles, and the dialogue is all the more effective for its rough edges (the result of McCarey's working methods), moments when they speak over each other or when Dunne keeps up a running commentary to what Grant is saying. They really do seem like a couple talking to each other, not a pair of actors speaking lines.
 The whole production is visually gorgeous - Grant's suits and Dunne's dresses alone are worth the entrance fee, but we are also treated to a range of fabulous, no-expense-spared Thirties interiors. It's always a joy to look at as well as to listen to. Is it still funny? Oh yes, I'd say so - it certainly had me laughing, especially towards the end, when Dunne hits new heights of comic invention and sets the action spinning towards its inevitable, and deeply satisfying, end. And the whole thing comes in at under 90 minutes - they knew how to edit in those days.


  1. I went with the footie. What's not to like about shredded jerseys, an exploding ball and a stealth Kosovar team playing under the flag of Switzerland? All very madcap.

  2. "In comedy, every minute over 90 feels like two minutes." -- Billy Wilder

  3. Great quote Jeff - so true. The Awful Truth is 3 mins under.