Filmsite Movie Review
The Awful Truth (1937)
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The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the classic, definitive screwball comedies of the thirties from Columbia Pictures, joining company with other classics including Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936), George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941). Producer/director Leo McCarey's stylish light comedy is a witty battlefield of marital misadventures, mismatches and snappy dialogue, with physical scenes of slapstick, spontaneous and improvised acting, and hilarious romantic antagonism between its two stars - Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. They appear as a mistrusting couple who decide to separate and file for divorce, but then attempt to sabotage and ruin each other's new romances and affairs, and are ultimately reconciled to each other just before the divorce decree becomes final.

It was the first of the major stars' three films together - Grant and Dunne were reunited in the romantic screwball farce My Favorite Wife (1940) (also produced by Leo McCarey) and then in the classic tear-jerker Penny Serenade (1941). This film also starred an Airedale, Scottish fox terrier named Mr. Smith (known as Asta in The Thin Man (1934) series of films, and who was later to appear in Bringing Up Baby (1938)) to bank on the previous success of a husband-wife and dog combination.

The film's screenplay was based on Arthur Richman's 1921 Broadway drawing-room comedy (starring Ina Claire) of the same name, about marriage and divorce. It was filmed twice before: as a 1925 silent film (starring Agnes Ayres and Warner Baxter) and then as a 1929 sound film (with Ina Claire and Henry Daniell). It was even remade as Let's Do It Again (1953) with Jane Wyman and Ray Milland.

The bright, zesty, and carefree film was nominated for six Academy Awards, and won only one Oscar - Best Director (Leo McCarey). The Best Picture award went to the serious biopic The Life of Emile Zola. Its other nominations included: Best Picture, Best Actress (Irene Dunne with her third nomination), Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Bellamy), Best Screenplay (Vina Delmar), and Best Film Editing. Unbelievably, Grant - in his first starring success - was not nominated for his superbly zany, inspired performance executed with perfect timing.

Plot Synopsis

The titles and credits of the outrageous, fast-moving story, filmed from a sketchy script that often left the actors befuddled and bewildered (and forced to improvise), are displayed in a lace-lined Valentine's book. The main title appears above a cupid's arrow shot through a heart. The first image of the film is a long shot of the city skyline of New York - viewed from the East River. A large clock chimes 8 o'clock outside the "Gotham Athletic Clvb" where 'white-skinned' Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) prepares to tan himself under a sunlamp: "I've gotta get a deep Florida tan if it takes all afternoon...All aboard for Miami, Palm Beach and points south." His squash buddy Frank remarks that he looks awfully white after having spent "two weeks in Florida." It appears to him that Jerry has engaged in some hanky-panky and "pulled a fast one on the little wife." Jerry admits that he is trying to look as if he's been in Florida, and tanning himself to avoid embarrassing his wife Lucy. Whatever he has done or wherever he has been, he doesn't want to manufacture a massive lie:

Well, I'm gonna be tanned and Lucy's not gonna be embarrassed. And what wives don't know won't hurt them.

To embellish the masquerade of his supposed two-week vacation in Florida, Jerry returns home to his luxurious place with two athletic-club friends (to serve as a protective buffer), all dressed in tweedy outfits: Mr. and Mrs. Barnsley (Scott Colton and Wyn Cahoon), Miss Heath (Bess Flowers) and Mr. Frank Randall (Robert (Tex) Allen). He also carries a clear-wrapped basket-of-'Florida'-fruit homecoming gift for Lucy. To his consternation, his wife is "out" without explanation. The couple's dog "Mr. Smith" leaps into his master's arms. One of the guests notices Lucy's unopened mail from the day before, and shrewdly comments about Lucy's unknown whereabouts overnight: "I hope Lucy comes back looking as well as you do." As he serves egg-nog drinks, Jerry makes the 'broad-minded' remark that married couples should enjoy themselves and not wrongly suspect each other of infidelity:

I wish Lucy would go out and get some fun for herself now and again. It would do her good. That's the trouble with most marriages today. People are always imagining things. The road to Reno is paved with suspicions. And the first thing you know, they all end up in a divorce court.

After the arrival of Lucy's Aunt Patsy ("Patty") Adams (Cecil Cunningham), Jerry's wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) appears at the door in a swanky, fluffy, knee-length white fur jacket that covers a sequined and sparkling evening dress. She cries: "Darling!...Did you miss me? Been thinking about me?" From behind the door, her handsome French singing/voice teacher dressed in dinner clothes, her new love interest Armand Duvalle (Alexander D'Arcy) follows - [named after the romantic lead in Camille (1936)]. With his face buried in the furry coat, Jerry pulls the white fur down and spies the man that accompanies his wife. With an ironic twist that escalates further suspicions between the couple, she mischievously excuses their late arrival and their spending a platonic night together due to a car breakdown - a very compromising situation:

Well, if we haven't had the most terrible time. Armand's car broke down last night a million miles from nowhere and we had to stay at the nastiest little inn you ever saw. No modern conveniences at all. It was dreadful. We were on our way home from the Junior Prom. A pupil of Armand's invited us. And, oh well, it's a long story.

She presses her seemingly non-chalant husband: "Were you disappointed when I wasn't here, darling?" Even Armand, playing the archetypal foreign lover, compliments Jerry on his lack of suspicion typically felt by American men: "He's free of all mean suspicion. Yes, he has more the Continental mind." Lucy glibly remarks:

(You) can't have a happy married life if you're always going to be suspicious of each other...No one's interested in my night's adventure except Jerry and he knows it's innocent, just as well as he knows that, well, that he just got back from Florida.

The other guests leave after sensing a brewing domestic crisis. When Armand remains behind and doesn't take the hint to leave, Jerry (sitting on the top of the couch) politely shakes nutmeg into Armand's eggnog, but firmly invites him to the door so that he and Lucy can "discuss it in private," while Lucy's teacher protests that he is innocent of any wrong-doing:

Armand: Well, in all fairness, you should permit me to remain and explain ourselves.
Lucy: Well, American women aren't accustomed to gallantry, Armand. I appreciate your offer, but maybe you had better go.
Armand: Oh, pardon me, Mrs. Warriner, you misunderstand. I am a voice teacher, am I not? For one year, she has been my pupil. And from time to time, I pat her on the back. I mean, I congratulate her on her development. (Lucy looks down at her nails.) Do I express myself?
Jerry: Yes, you've been doing all right.
Armand: But now my position must be considered. I have never yet been in a scandal.
Jerry: Never been caught, huh?
Armand: No. I am a great teacher, not a great lover.
Lucy: That's right, Armand. No one could ever accuse you of being a great lover. That is, I mean to say, well, well who's to say whether you are or not. It's all so silly, but maybe you had better go.

Jealous, Jerry is unable to believe that his amused wife remained faithful (going to a junior prom in an expensive fur coat?), and compliments Armand on his "performance considering no rehearsals or anything." Getting on his high horse, he reprimands Lucy after Armand has left, accusing her of disregarding their marriage vows during her escapade:

Perhaps our marriage doesn't mean anything to you?...Perhaps you have no sentiment left for me.

Lucy is incredulous, but the tables are soon turned when Lucy catches an orange in her hand from his gift basket and finds that it is stamped: "ORANGE GROWERS ASSOCIATION, CALIFORNIA." She admits that she knows just how he feels - and is unable to believe his preposterous claims of vacationing in Florida. Their miscommunication and suspicious distrust reaches its peak when the two proud individuals mutually object to each other's stories. His whereabouts are completely unexplained, while her excuses are indeed "truth"-ful - "and it seems there's nothing less logical than the truth":

Lucy: It's enough to destroy one's faith, isn't it?
Jerry: Oh, I haven't any faith left in anyone.
Lucy: I know just how you feel.
Jerry: What do you mean?
Lucy: (She tosses the orange at him and he notices his incriminating mistake.) You didn't happen to mention in any of your letters what a terrible rainy spell they were having in Florida. The papers were full of it.
Jerry: Well, I can explain that, Lucy.
Lucy: You can?
Jerry: And don't try to change the subject. You think a great offense is a great defense. Don't try to justify your behavior by insinuating things about me.
Lucy: But I haven't any behavior to justify. I've just been unlucky, that's all. You've come home and caught me in a truth and it seems there's nothing less logical than the truth.
Jerry: Hmm, a philosopher, huh?
Lucy: You don't believe me.
Jerry: Oh, how can I believe you? 'The car broke down.' People stopped believing that one before cars stopped breaking down.
Lucy: Well, his car's very old.
Jerry: Well, so's his story.

During their marital quarrel, Lucy defines a happy marriage as one built on faith without doubts: "I've told you the truth about all this, Jerry. Don't you see that there can't be any doubt in marriage? The whole thing's built on faith. If you've lost that, well, you've lost everything." Jerry presumes that their marriage is "washed up" because they have lost faith in each other. She responds emotionally: "Do you mean that?...All right then, that settles it" and then decides to ask for a divorce:

I wouldn't go on living with you if you were dipped in platinum. So go on, divorce me. Go on, divorce me! It'll be a pleasure.

When he refuses to divorce her, Lucy decides to initiate divorce proceedings on her own: "All right, then I'll divorce you. I believe it's customary anyhow for the wife to bring suit. It has something to do with a husband being a gentleman, if you know what I mean? (She flicks her beaded sleeve)...I'll call up our lawyer right now." They are serious about separation and divorce and he encourages her to phone his lawyer.

During the phone call, the peace-making lawyer (Mitchell Harris) tries to discourage Lucy from acting hastily: "Now, now Lucy, don't do anything in haste that you might regret later. Marriage is a beautiful thing." In the telling vignette as he spouts the adage that "marriage is a beautiful thing," he turns toward his wife, who repeatedly complains that he hasn't finished his rapidly cooling dinner - and growls three times at her: "Please be quiet, will you?...Please shut your mouth!...Will you shut your big mouth! I'll eat when I get good and ready and if you don't like it, you know what you can do, so shut up!"

The Chancery Court hears the case of Warriner v. Warriner, and the judge (Paul Stanton) grants an interlocutory decree of divorce in favor of the plaintiff, Mrs. Warriner. At the start of the scene, Mr. Smith has been ordered from the courtroom for being a "naughty dog." The couple are separated and on the verge of divorce (during a 90 day waiting period) because each of them has suspected the other partner of being unfaithful: "If the divorce is not further contested, it will become final 90 days from this date. The plaintiff and the defendant will then be at liberty to make other marriages if such be their desire." One matter remains "unsettled" however - the custody of their dog, and both of them engage in a custody battle over Mr. Smith. According to Jerry's lawyer, his client "wishes to have him because - he's mine." Lucy persistently objects and contends that the dog is her "personal property."

She argues that she saw Mr. Smith first in a pet shop on Madison Avenue and wanted to buy him. But Jerry had also seen the dog and picked it up in his arms. To resolve the question of ownership, they went to lunch together and soon married each other to establish a home for the dog:

And then somehow, all of a sudden, the three of us were having lunch together. The man, and Mr. Smith, and I. And then things began to happen rather swiftly. And finally I said, well I think we'd better get married. And we did. And that way, we were able to give Mr. Smith a better home and live happily ever after. Until now.

Abandoning the lawbooks, the judge leaves the "final decision" of custody up to the dog - who is brought back into the courtroom: "The custody of the dog will depend upon his own desire." The dog is placed equi-distant from them and caught in a dilemma - with calls and pathetic entreaties from both sides for the dog's affection, Mr. Smith swivels his head back and forth between his two owners. [The eager dog, expressing longings for both of them, represents the one existing emotional link left between them.] Lucy wins by cheating - she surreptitiously lures the dog with a glimpse of its favorite squeeze toy hidden in her fur muff. Lucy exclaims to the judge: "I win, don't I?" Disappointed in the not-so-fair decision, a bewildered Jerry objects and argues for visitation rights: "I ought to be able to see the dog twice a month or something." After shaking hands with Jerry, Lucy leaves the courtroom with the dog and a basket of fruit [the original basket of fruit as proof, or a new congratulatory one from friends?].

After a month of time passes, the Warriners' divorce is due to be final in approximately sixty days. Lucy has rented another apartment which she shares with her feisty Aunt Patsy, but she has become disconsolate and bored ("moping around," according to her Aunt) during the "readjustment" period of her separation from Jerry. Aunt Patsy complains about Lucy's dull company, her sitting around every night, and her refusal to go out without an escort:

Aunt Patsy: You know dozens of men who would turn handsprings at the chance to take you out. Here I've got you all dressed up, ready to go out and you weaken and refuse...I want to go where there's life, and I don't mean plant life. I want to go to the theatre, you know, and go places later and step around and do things...I don't need an escort to get a drink. I'm going down to the bar and see Joe. Bartender or no bartender, he's still a man. Maybe he knocks off early.
Lucy: Oh, Patty, you wouldn't!
Aunt Patsy: I wouldn't, eh? You're talking to a desperate woman. (Mr. Smith jumps up next to Lucy on the couch.) Too bad he can't wear a top-hat.

On her way out of the 11th floor apartment to the elevator, Aunt Patsy runs into wealthy Oklahoman oil heir Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy) from an apartment across the hall where he is staying with his mother - he is singing and humming "Home on the Range" to himself. The goofy rube asks Aunt Patsy for a favor as the elevator doors close. The arrow indicating the elevator's descent reaches three and then abruptly returns to the eleventh floor. She takes him arm-in-arm into her apartment to meet her niece: "Imagine you living right across the hall from us all of this time." Aunt Patsy thrusts the rich, single, eligible bachelor at Lucy: "He's a stranger in town. He'd take it as being real neighborly of us if we show him some of the bright spots."

Daniel: We're here on a visit. I'm in oil, you know.
Aunt Patsy: Marinated, so to speak.
Daniel: (guffawing) Say, that's a good one. I gotta remember to tell that to my mother. (Mr. Smith growls at him.)
Aunt Patsy: Mr. Leeson. Won't you tell us something about Oklahoma?
Daniel: Well, Oklahoma's pretty swell. I got quite a ranch down there. I'd like to have you see it sometime, Mrs. Warriner...I got cattle and horses and chickens and alfalfa.

Jerry unexpectedly knocks at the door and enters, ostensibly to see Mr. Smith: "This is my day to visit Mr. Smith." In a custody battle for the family dog, the judge's decision to allow visitation rights for Mr. Smith repeatedly forces Jerry and Lucy together - although they have only 59 days remaining in their marriage. Both bedevil each other and try to stir up the engagements each of them start to develop with other suitors/mates, as the clock ticks toward the finality of their divorce. First, it's Jerry's turn to meet Lucy's new prospect:

Lucy: He's only my husband for - how much longer is it now? Sixty days?
Jerry: Fifty-nine.
Lucy: Oh, that's better. Only fifty-nine days. Don't worry about him, he has a Continental mind.
Daniel: (They shake hands) I'm glad to know ya.
Jerry: How can you be glad to know me? I know how I'd feel if I was sitting with a girl and her husband walked in.
Lucy: I'll bet you do.
Jerry: (To Lucy) You know, I don't think you ought to go around telling people you're not married. He looks like a nice sort of fella. How do you think he feels?
Lucy: Why don't you go and play with the dog?

He leaves them on the sofa: "Don't mind me," and takes Mr. Smith over to the piano. Feigning interest in her guest, Lucy asks: "Tell me some more about Arizona." He corrects her: "Oklahoma." Lucy and Jerry speak in double entendres that only they can appreciate:

Jerry: (To Mr. Smith) Hey, is he getting enough to eat lately? He doesn't look very well.
Lucy: Well, you don't look so hot yourself.

Jerry scornfully laughs and bangs out a loud duet on the piano keys with Mr. Smith providing the vocal barks. Exasperated with him for upsetting her hostessing and drowning out their conversation, Lucy heaves her newspaper at her soon-to-be ex-husband and exclaims to her guest: "Come on, let's get out of here." She contemptuously kicks up the back of her evening dress toward Jerry as she leaves the apartment with her Aunt and escort. While they wait for the elevator, the egregious Oklahoman hick gives some insightful, home-spun romantic wisdom to Lucy:

Daniel: Are you sure you don't like that fella?
Lucy: Like him? You saw the way I treated him, didn't you?
Daniel: That's what I mean. Back on my ranch, I got a little red rooster and a little brown hen and they fight all the time too, but every once in a while they make up again and they're right friendly.

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