Op-Ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘The Awful Truth’ (#77)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
It’s difficult not to view The Awful Truth (1937) as a footnote in the glittering careers of Leo McCarey, Cary Grant, and Irene Dunne. For Grant and Dunne, this was just one of many romantic comedies that they churned out in the 1930s. For McCarey, it was the lesser of the two films that he made in 1937. When he won an Academy Award for directing The Awful Truth, he bashfully stated “I want to thank the Academy for this wonderful award, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” He was more proud of his work on Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a highly acclaimed domestic drama that garnered positive reviews from the likes of Orson Welles and Errol Morris.
I would love to sit here and tell you that The Awful Truth is an underrated classic that deserves more attention from modern viewers but, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it isn’t the most memorable romantic comedy ever made. Most entries in the genre follow the same formula but The Awful Truth fails to put a fresh spin on a tale as old as time. Viña Delmar’s screenplay tells the story of two wealthy socialites who find themselves drifting back together whilst going through a trial separation. Jerry Warriner (Grant) is a lazy sports fanatic who irritates his wife Lucy (Dunne) by being too uptight and suspicious. She is a bubbly, carefree social butterfly who provokes her husband’s ire when she ends up in a compromising situation with her music teacher. They decide to get divorced because of these conflicts and end up dating other people during their separation period. Lucy becomes especially concerned about losing Warriner to one of his girlfriends and resolves to win him back.
McCarey seemingly endeavoured to give the film a bit of extra sparkle by incorporating bizarre scene transitions into an otherwise ordinary plot structure. As with so many romantic films made under the Hays Code, the filmmakers had to find a creative way to subtly incorporate sexual innuendo into scenes that would have featured nudity or passionate smooching in the Pre-Code era. The Lady Eve (1941) featured many references to Henry Fonda’s ‘snake’ and It Happened One Night (1934) got away with showing off Clark Gable’s bare chest, but The Awful Truth might have been the first film to try to make cuckoo clocks happen.
I suspect that most people would be creeped out by the image of anthropomorphised wooden dolls heading into a bedroom to have sex, but McCarey and Delmar seemingly thought they were onto something here. They wheel out jokes involving the wooden doll versions of Warriner and Jerry every thirty minutes and none of them hit. They try to find the perfect balance between sexy and sweet, but end up missing both targets by a country mile.
McCarey also favoured improvisation on set and liked to produce free flowing, loosely structured comedies. He would treat scenes like vignettes and many of his greatest successes focused on the ebb and flow of relationships between stubborn individuals. Editor LeRoy Stone frequently collaborated with McCarey and he found a way to forcefully bring together the divergent themes and plotlines found in Going My Way (1944). Stone’s editing style helped to paper over some of the gaps that could be found in McCarey’s construction of certain scenes. Al Clark did not have as much experience working with McCarey and their different aesthetics never really mesh together effectively. Clark’s editing would seem to suggest that this is a witty, fast paced screwball comedy that is packed with jokes. McCarey’s direction favors elaborately written jokes that are enhanced by cutesy camera movements. The spontaneous quality of Grant and Dunne’s performances was diminished by the quick, jaunty cuts that Clark introduced into scenes that would have functioned better if they hadn’t moved at a rapid fire pace.
All of the pieces function on their own but they never add up to anything great. Grant and Dunne are mismatched as a romantic pair and, to be quite frank, they can’t hold a candle to the iconic movie star pairings of the genre. Their discord feels representative of the film’s general flatness. It wants to be cheeky and daring but it always feels like it’s playing it a little too safe. It was clearly intended to serve as a follow-up to other successful screwball comedies that dealt with similar themes and it does end up having a paint by numbers quality. This is why it never firmly establishes its own identity. It remains in an arrested development of sorts, as the filmmakers try to figure out whether they want it to be the next Theodora Goes Wild (1936) or the latest in a long line of films that gaslight the audience into believing that Grant was in any way handsome or desirable.
It pains me to be so dismissive of such a modest, un-bombastic production. So much of the list is filled out with films that are too big for their own good. Amidst all of the technologically innovative disaster movies and travelogues that are supposedly about the Russian Revolution, this film ends up looking like an inspired choice. It does feature the dreaded Grant but it’s still slightly different to a lot of the other selections that they made. In its own way, it is a noble failure.