If you’re looking for a film to watch this Valentine’s Day which expresses its romantic core through intelligent dialogue and incidents of wheeze-inducing silliness, I’d suggest looking no further than Leo McCarey’s sparkling yet woefully undersung screwball-comedy The Awful Truth (1937).
Lucy and Jerry Warriner (Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) are a married couple who decide on a divorce. She suspects him because he’s lied about his location for the last fortnight, and he suspects her for staying out all night and coming home with her impossibly debonair singing instructor. There are two catches: firstly, they’re obviously still in love, and secondly, who will get custody of their dog, Mr Smith? (No trivial question, Mr Smith is an exceptional dog!) In the ninety-day waiting period before finalising their settlement, Lucy meets a neighbour, Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), an Oklahoma oil tycoon never far away from belting out the refrain from ‘Home on the Range.’ Something about his sweet dimness endears him to Lucy, so Jerry sets out to disrupt their courtship, using the time granted him in visitation rights with Mr Smith.
While The Awful Truth isn’t as clever or fast or dark as Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940), its central romance unfolds in exactly the same manner – intellectual confrontation. There’s a contest at the heart of the pair’s every interaction, Lucy usually winning the battle of wits in conversation, Jerry usually winning in game of practical schemes. But it isn’t nasty. It’s notable for the affection they hold for each other; for when Lucy outwits Jerry, or when Jerry organises for some social embarrassment (such as a honkingly funny dance-sequence), it’s clear that they’re not only trying to best a worthy opponent, but trying to make them laugh, too. There’s a sense of an elaborate, private joke between them, which is its own version of love.
Dunne and Grant are irresistibly fun. Reaction shots make up about a third of the film’s run-time, and this would be a huge indulgence if it weren’t for the total charm of their performances. Watching Lucy, who can outmanoeuvre almost all before her, concede defeat to one of Jerry’s pranks with her face is a delight. Jerry’s face, when Lucy perforates his raffish charm, is a total joy also. But, for all that’s cerebral, there’s still a good amount of slapstick lurking in the film’s interiors (when I say that watching Cary Grant fall off of a chair is breathlessly funny, believe me). Let’s not forget Ralph Bellamy, who, between this and His Girl Friday, set a brilliant standard for the comedic earnest idiot on screen.
And it ends on a truly graceful note: two people talking with wit, with warmth, and with no small dose of insight about the truth of their relationship. It’s the film’s marriage of this sort of romantic, intelligent conversation to a mode of kind-hearted hilarity that makes The Awful Truth a truly blissful experience.
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