(This post also appears today on Wonders in the Dark, as part of their Comedy Countdown series.)
A few years back, when memes were passed around the film blogosphere like a flu virus, I was invited to name my ten favorite film characters of all time. Right at the very top of my list, I placed Lucy and Jerry Warriner, the sparring, on-and-off spouses played by Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth. In retrospect, that was a telling choice.
With the possible exception of the Thin Man movies, I can't think of another screwball comedy whose principal characters are so much fun to watch regardless of what they're doing or what's happening around them. Screwball comedies aren't typically character-driven; their motors run on intricately structured plotting and razor sharp, rat-a-tat dialogue. The Awful Truth, by contrast, belongs wholly to the screwball genre, and yet stands apart from it in significant ways, and its character focus is the least of it. Its loose, free-wheeling style is a result of its being made without a completed working script; bits of comic business were improvised and McCarey notoriously wrote much of the dialogue while on the set. Thus the film is a bit short on plot, but very long on brilliantly funny, sketch-like scenes that could each, more or less, stand on their own. You could dive into the film at say, the beginning of the nightclub scene where the estranged Warriners and their ill-chosen new partners end up at the same, uncomfortable table, and still follow and laugh at the proceedings.
The story, such as it is, is this simple:
We open with Jerry Warriner at his club, getting a sunlamp-induced tan so he'll convincingly look as if he's been in Florida for the last two weeks before returning home to his wife, Lucy. (Where he's really been and what he's been doing are never specified.) When he does return home, along with a coterie of friends he's invited for cocktails, Lucy is nowhere to be found. Eventually, she arrives - still in last night's evening dress, trailing her handsome-but-clueless voice teacher (Alexander D'Arcy) behind and brightly spinning a story about the car breaking down. Jerry's ruse about the Florida trip is exposed when Lucy spots the "Grown in California" stamp on the "Florida oranges" he's brought her as a gift. With their trust in each other shattered, the couple makes a seemingly half-hearted decision to divorce. Forced to cross paths repeatedly afterwards (mainly due to a shared custody agreement over their dog, Mr. Smith), they spend the rest of the film scheming to break up each other's rebound romances until they are finally reunited for good. In the meantime, Lucy is briefly engaged to Oklahoma oilman, Daniel - an exuberantly innocent rube played with comic gusto by Ralph Bellamy - while Jerry first dates a nightclub singer named Dixiebelle (Joyce Compton), then a "madcap heiress" (so-called anyway; Molly Lamont seems mostly grim and humorless in her brief scenes.)
Re-watching The Awful Truth is always a tremendous pleasure for me, not so much because I get invested in the suspense of whether the Warriners end up together (I take that for granted), but just for the fun of watching them tease each other and get under each other's skin. Like most screwball characters, they're wealthy, witty and elegant, and move through a certain elevated stratum of society with ease. Unlike the typical screwball denizen, however, neither is particularly madcap nor given to eccentric behavior. If anything, the Warriners are models of middlebrow propriety and emotional reserve, only letting down their guard and allowing themselves to look foolish when their attempts to win each other back become desperate. This point is brilliantly and exhaustively elucidated by James Harvey in his scholarly tome "Romantic Comedy in Hollywood," where he notes "they concern themselves with appearances finally so that they can defy and rise above them. They immolate themselves like other great lovers - but for laughs."
The aforementioned nightclub scene is a case in point. Jerry's date, Dixiebelle, takes the stage to sing "Gone with the Wind," accompanied by wind effects that blow her dress up over her silken panties whenever she sings the title phrase. The icy mortification at the table where Jerry, Lucy and Daniel watch this display with escalating levels of unspoken horror and discomfort is a little masterpiece of comic nuance, although - significantly - no one laughs or makes a rude remark. Later, after bragging of the "cups" he's won for his ballroom dancing skills back home, Daniel gets Lucy on to the dance floor for a wildly enthusiastic, floor-stomping performance that brings the nightclub to a standstill. Dunne plays Lucy's' acute embarrassment at being part of the spectacle, as well as her determination to gamely support Daniel in his moment of glory, with a delicious play of barely controlled facial expressions and body language. Grant, meanwhile, is every bit as funny registering Jerry's happy enjoyment of Lucy's predicament.
Ultimately Jerry wins Lucy's heart back only by pratfalling into her voice recital (mistakenly believing it is a behind-closed-doors tryst with her voice teacher) and noisily collapsing his chair as she hits her final high note - in short, he makes a fool of himself and makes her laugh. Through another series of complications, her loses her again, but this time Lucy goes to her own comic extremes to win him back. She shows up unexpectedly at the home of Jerry's heiress fiancee, Barbara Vance, and her stuffy highbrow parents, disguised as Jerry's "sister," Lola: a floozy in oversized hair bow and tight fitting dress who asks for a drink, announcing "I've had five or six already, but they're starting to wear off and you know how that is!" (A great line. I'm actually laughing as I type it....) She caps off the night by performing Dixiebelle's nightclub number to the quietly registered horror of the Vances - and the irrepressible amusement of her ex-husband.
It's always a treat to re-experience these scenes and other bits of funny business that still make me laugh out loud after innumerable repeat viewings. Some of those laughs are not particularly sophisticated. Take for example, Jerry's first post-divorce visit to Lucy's apartment to see Mr. Smith. He plays the piano loudly with Mr. Smith barking along for accompaniment, stopping abruptly so Mr. Smith can "take it" - which he does barking in a perfectly rhythmic solo. I can't tell you why that's so funny, but it just is - even more so when Grant merrily cracks up himself.
Dunne and Grant, whose marvelous comic chemistry gives The Awful Truth its lovely, lunatic charm were a classic screen couple. They worked together again with Leo McCarey on My Favorite Wife, which actually recycled some gags from The Awful Truth, and with George Stevens on the oppressively weepy Penny Serenade. McCarey won a Oscar for his direction of the film, with both Dunne and Bellamy nominated for their work. Of course, the inexplicably missing nominee there is Cary Grant. The Academy may have had their heads up their collective behinds when overlooking him, but Hollywood caught on fast; Grant became one of the screen's greatest comic leading men making the classics Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday in just the next four years alone.