The Awful Truth
(1937, d. Leo McCarey)
(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 4 to Aug. 14 features 80 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)
Faced with a prolonged economic calamity of devastating proportions, Depression-era America did the only sensible thing that a self-respecting bankrupt nation could do - it made an endless series of comedies about zany millionaires.
If in the thirties you lived in a tent in the Arabian desert and only knew America through its films, then you would be convinced that every American woman was an oddball heiress who probably owned an unusually spunky dog. The image that America sent into the world was quite different from its real domestic life.
If this wasn't exactly using art to capture the zeitgeist, it at least had the benefit of being damn funny. Among the best of these films - arguably the best - is Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth. The Thin Man might be more romantic and polished. Bringing Up Baby, wackier. The Philadelphia Story, more star-studded, His Girl Friday better known. But The Awful Truth runs on a wry series of ironic lines, arched eyebrows, knowing glances, and a genuine, recognizable emotional current that makes it stand out from its competition.
The Awful Truth has Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a stylish and unfaithful New York couple who choose to divorce on a whim. They realize their mistake early, but pride keeps them from reconciliation. Each one gets engaged, and each one sabotages the new engagement – his with an heiress, hers with an awkward millionaire from Oklahoma who lives with his mother across the hall (Ralph Bellamy).
To understand what I like about The Awful Truth, you should first know what I dislike about The Philadelphia Story. In that 1940 comedy, Cary Grant does nothing to earn the heiress (Katharine Hepburn) except show up, sit around, be rich, wait for Hepburn to let her guard down and for the Hollywood star system to kick in. He doesn’t work for it at all, as he does in The Awful Truth. Grant may be polished confidence on the outside, but he’s a playful and vulnerable child inside. He wants what he wants, and he's willing to play ball to get it. One of the film's best moments is his cage match with a sitting room chair in the middle of a singing recital. He does the thing that a star can never supposedly do – he lets the chair win.
So much is written about Grant and not enough about Ralph Bellamy. The definition of “character actor,” Bellamy was formed out of some scientific goo as the Anti-Cary Grant. He spent the thirties playing that part in movie after movie. There was good reason that he served as the Anti-Cary Grant – he was darn good at not being Cary Grant. If his part were written today, he would be a high-rolling jerk who never listens to the heroine, shows up late, and says nasty things about her friends. As an oil-rich Oklahoman on a mission to the big city, Bellamy gives us a comic manufacture that’s alternately creepy and sweet without ever losing sympathy. We know he’s not the right guy for Dunne, but you never doubt there’s some sweet girl for him back in Tulsa.
There’s a famous nightclub scene in The Awful Truth, in which Grant lassoes Dunne into dancing with Bellamy. Ever the oblivious Oklahoman, Bellamy leads her in a vigorous dance in which she can barely keep up. The perfect look on Dunne gives to Grant screams, “Rescue me.” Grant obliges by having the band play the song again. It’s a moment that cuts through the games being played and tells us what we already know - that when the theses two are meant to be together. It’s hard to imagine this couple living out their lives entirely content or faithful. But you know they’ll spend a lifetime of chasing each other around the kitchen table.