#111. The Awful Truth (1937)

It’s charming and I get the allure of it, and it’s an even more impressive achievement if most of the dialogue was in fact, as the Book says, improvised. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne deliver their lines and move around the sets (pretty much all of which are fancy sterile rooms) with cool comedic grace, nuance, whatever you wanna call it. It feels as well-coordinated and comfortable confined as a well-rehearsed stageplay. Most of the good lines aren’t so much laugh-worthy as smile-worthy, where you appreciate and delight in the movie’s wit without being moved by it, and yeah there’s warmth to the story – or to the idea of this sort of story, where starcrossed lovers separate because they’re too similar and later reunite because they’re actually perfect for each other – but the final product feels cold. Maybe too rehearsed, too well-targeted.

awful trth grant dunne   A friend pointed out to me recently that he’s frustrated by reviews like this one, which he says are both ubiquitous and totally endemic of my age group, wherein the writer says that the script was great and the performances memorable, the directing was brilliant, the set design evocative and costumes all gorgeous – “but it just didn’t work for me.” There’s a trace of that here, in saying that I didn’t like The Awful Truth despite its being an exceptionally on-point rom-com, but mostly the issue is that I just don’t see why it’s on the List.

I mentioned to Pavel, a critic who writes for Punch Drunk Movies, that I didn’t like this and was surprised when he told me he loves it, bought the DVD, and so I asked why he likes it so much and he says, “because it’s funny.”

“Funny how?”

He shrugs. “It’s just funny.”

Fair enough. When I said I couldn’t see why it was on the List he said that it’s probably because The Awful Truth has a perfect grip on its genre. That while it might seem small and unremarkable in 2018, when we’ve got a million movies in the same vein, it’s up there with It Happened One Night as one of the genre’s breakthroughs. Like maybe it seems too perfect and performed because the formula had to be literally perfected before later generations could play with it.

Two people who are made for each other, embodied by actors who go well together on screen, and the audience gets to sit comfortably and watch our lovers dance their way toward each other, safe in the knowledge that nothing is really at stake here and everything will end up happily.

Director Leo McCarey – who appeared on the List just a few titles ago with the infinitely stronger (and more depressing) Make Way for Tomorrow – makes our stars’ relationship seem remarkably quaint. Dunne, in the first half of the movie, is engaged to marry a momma’s-boy dandy named Dan (Ralph Bellamy). When at one point he asks for a kiss in the doorway of her apartment (or was it a hotel room?) Dunne makes a show of protesting that kiss on grounds that they’ve never kissed before, and oughtn’t go too fast. Granted: it’s a hasty, stammering, ill-conceived excuse she’s delivering because her true love (and former lover), played by Grant, has unexpectedly appeared in her apartment, and she doesn’t wanna French this guy while her ex watches. But still. She and this dude, Dan, are engaged and she’s telling him she won’t give him a kiss because they shouldn’t’ go too fast.

awful truth kiss Obviously it’s meant to elicit a laugh, and an audience of the era would have considered it just as silly as we do today, but is it also kinda grounded in what, for an audience of the 1930s, might be a faimiliarly stringent conservatism? I saw a documentary a while ago that featured Henry Miller as a very old man and he was saying that there was, without question, “as much fucking going on” in the 1920s as in the ‘60s and 70s. Not sure if that’s totally true, amybe simply because people felt greater pressure to be covert and because young people couldn’t readily steal away to co-ed dorms. Often the only way for young women to get out of their parents’ house was to get married. So, living with a husband, it was probably hard to get laid elsewhere. The pay gap being even more cavernous than it is today, an average American woman who was unhappy in her marriage had a harder time getting divorced because how would she sustain herself? Nonetheless, I’m sure there was a lot f it, and that everybody knew there was a lot of it. Probably one of the hazards to a strict code of censorship in media, though, is that subsequent generations, looking at that media, are left with a delusion of what the period was really like, what folks got up to at night.

Anyway. Like I said: good movie, amusing, but kind of unremarkable. Also, I don’t really like Cary Grant. Seems smug. If it’s on TCM and you’re bored, though, it might lighten things up.

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