The Awful Truth (1937)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Sunday, August 12, at BAM’s “American Gagsters” series
Jealousy—the most self-sabotaging of all emotions—is the true star of Leo McCarey’s glamorous, sadistic The Awful Truth. Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) and his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) live their lives in matrimonial-existential agony, constantly either cuckolding one another or being publicly caught tiptoeing around it, hangers-on and society crones giggling from the sidelines, the couple stuck at the precipice of aristocratic fantasy. Things have gotten so bad that one very public hashing-out in the couple’s Manhattan apartment sees an acquaintance complimenting Jerry for being “continental” about his wife’s indiscretions. Finally, Lucy files to call it quits; the movie takes place over their divorce’s 60-day initiation period.
It’s a perilous game of chicken, with each looking to derail the other’s sex life and restore their rightful entitlement as husband and/or wife. Still legally married, they immediately run into each other at a nightclub, each with their own date; Dunne is thrilled to publicly humiliate Grant with her new squeeze, a clueless Oklahoma ranch magnate (played winningly by Ralph Bellamy). Grant’s balloon is sufficiently popped by the experience that he tells his escort, an also-clueless showgirl, that “I’m in love with love. In the spring, a young man’s fancy turns into… uh, whatever he’s been thinking about all winter.” He can’t cheer up without paying the orchestra for an encore, locking Dunne and Bellamy in an extended dance well beyond his talent or her comfort zone. (For him it’s a stroke of divine luck; for her, it’s mortifying.)
McCarey is a genius, less for pointing out what has become a genre standard—the one you can’t stand is also the only one for you!—than for weaving it around spellbindingly uncomfortable set pieces with real teeth, littering the dialogue with one-offs so callous you’ll hardly notice the first time. Dunne single-handedly demolishes Grant’s chances with a new fiancee’s family when she drunkenly shows up pretending to be his sister. The question of whether or not they are actually sleeping with other people is happily forgotten whenever the narrative’s pulse quickens; without saying too much, both stars have the chops to give the slapstick and double-crossing just enough blue, enough fear of being alone. And this is actually where The Awful Truth mops the floor with Bringing Up Baby: it’s not just some goofy chemistry, it’s the pain of finding—and losing—the one you’ll go out on the furthest limb for.