It is almost inconceivable today that Academy voters would award an Oscar to the director of a light, farcical comedy. But in 1938, not only did Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth get the trophy, it won at the expense of that year’s other McCarey effort, Make Way For Tomorrow, a poignant and sincere drama about an elderly couple’s abandonment by their children. Now widely considered his best work, McCarey even noted its neglect by his contemporaries in his Oscar acceptance speech for that other movie: ‘you gave it to me for the wrong picture’, he complained. Critics tend to take that line completely seriously, but in the days before the Oscars became televised, it’s hard to determine tone. Maybe McCarey was trying to stick it to the superficial gadabouts that had ignored his most personal work; but it’s just as likely this was the zinger McCarey (an experienced comedy writer and director not given to rebellion or iconoclasm) thought would best amuse his friends and colleagues.
The joke works especially well, given that The Awful Truth is all about getting ‘the wrong picture’. If McCarey was only feigning ingratitude and pretending seriousness, then he was behaving exactly how he directed his actors to behave. Cary Grant and Irene Dunn are Jerry and Lucy Warriner, an urbane couple of Manhattanites whose mutual suspicions (he fakes a business trip to Florida; she has been spending time with her music teacher) prompt the most cheerful bitter divorce in cinema history. In the ensuing 60 days before the divorce is finalised, they both can’t resist involving themselves in each other’s lives and sabotaging each other’s love affairs.
The Warriners ought to come across as a hot mess, a dysfunctional pair of misery-makers who can’t bear being apart but don’t know how to live honestly together. The ‘comedy of remarriage’ plot is ruthlessly simple, with none of the spiralling zaniness of, say, Bringing Up Baby. But it also stands out for its symmetry, a screwball where each half of an already-married couple takes it in turns to do the figurative screwing. If screwball is, like gothic romance, a genre that concerns women’s battles to negotiate the boundaries of their romantic relationships, then it takes a miracle of tone to maintain the friendliness of that competition without dehumanising the competitors. The Awful Truth stands out partly because it requires so few ingredients to achieve this balance.
That spareness is perhaps what allowed Cary Grant to shine through in his star-making role, but it also provides great laboratory conditions in which to examine his star persona being born. This is probably why Criterion’s new release eschews the usual DVD extras (there’s no audio commentary) and puts all its eggs into a couple of baskets: a video essay on Cary Grant by David Cairns, who puts his performance in the context of his more passive, less impactful previous roles, and also an interview with critic Gary Giddins about McCarey, which essentially functions as the edited highlights of a non-existent full commentary. Together, they provide a good grounding in the general consensus on McCarey and Grant’s creative partnership.
Namely, that Grant was an acrobat who had reinvented himself as a suave, romantic sophisticate, and that McCarey not only helped rescue this persona from playing bland second fiddle to forceful personalities like Mae West, but also rediscovered Grant’s showmanship and athleticism (The Awful Truth has some of the all-time great Cary Grant pratfalls). McCarey’s approach as a director was so obtuse that Grant had almost no faith in him until the movie became a hit (they later became friends and worked together well into the ‘50s). McCarey was known for throwing out the script and ‘improvising’, but the word might be misleading in a post-Apatow world. An old interview by Irene Dunne, included on the disc, attests to the fact that the actors played scenes exactly how they were told to, while McCarey himself would come up with new ideas on the fly, sitting and playing at a piano that he always brought on set with him. It’s the kind of improvisation that could only happen on a studio conveyor belt: they build the sets and put costumes on the actors according to a scenario, then the director comes in and riffs on what he sees.
This method yields remarkably coherent results, with the seeds of some of the film’s biggest laughs being planted and cultivated long before they bear fruit. The film’s climax, of a sort, involves Irene Dunn performing a risqué cabaret song at a stuffy society party, in imitation of a woman in a much earlier scene. Ralph Bellamy’s nouveau-riche Oklahoma yokel can be heard humming ‘Home On The Range’ from his first appearance, anticipating his inept harmonising with Lucy later on. McCarey was a failed songwriter before he turned to directing; music is woven into the fabric of the film, and the film itself is structured like music. Grant and Dunne, especially, bounce gestures and mannerisms back and forth like duelling motifs.
McCarey’s most idiosyncratic tendency, though, is what critics consistently refer to as his ‘looseness’. I think what they mean is that he likes to give each comic beat its own space within the scene. His reaction shots are longer, his awkward moments more jarringly awkward; some scenes don’t rise to a crescendo, but gently drop off into ambivalence as the characters give up on toying with each other. This is perhaps what McCarey offered Grant that other directors had not: the time and space to use his face. He says sly, backhanded things, but McCarey focuses on the smile that wins us back over. Then when he loses his smug dignity completely and gets cut down to size, McCarey lingers on that front curl of hair that drops down Grant’s face after he beefs it.
This extra space between jokes gives the characters themselves the opportunity to laugh. It becomes a recurring theme; as each of them take it in turns to mock their spouse’s new relationships, the other becomes at first annoyed, and then, despite their best efforts, amused. Dunne realises that she still loves Grant because he humiliates himself at her singing recital, prompting her to add a fantastic, unprecedented sing-laugh to the end of it, probably the film’s best close-up moment. Grant in turn reconciles himself to Dunne when she pretends to be his embarrassing sister in front of his new fiancée (it’s a long story). He manages to keep a straight face until she describes him falling ‘flat on his puss’ after a night of drinking; again, his stifled laugh is better than any punchline.
The politics of this laughter, who it is aimed at, who shares it, its opposition to all forms of dignity, the way it reunites the divorcing couple and carves out a space for them apart from the slow-witted society around them, is endlessly fascinating, and speaks somewhat to Hollywood’s self-image. Grant grew up in Bristol, like me. His reinvention as a protean transatlantic charmer, a universally appealing avatar of classless elitism, was perfectly aligned with the cultural and economic ambitions of the Hollywood studios. This is, of course, a complete fantasy; Grant and Dunne’s characters seem wealthy enough not to worry about employment, they swan around drinking champagne and hiring servants, and they are even able to mock and take advantage of a couple of cops.
When small moments of reality punctuate that veneer of fantasy, the film soars: McCarey is acutely aware of the difference in status between a divorced man and a divorced woman, and even though Dunne is the one that initiates divorce proceedings, and the possibility of both of their infidelities is left open, Grant’s life as a bachelor is considerably freer, wealthier and less open to scrutiny and scandal. And then there’s the ending, which tiptoes in iron boots around the Hays Code’s injunction not to depict even a married couple in the same bed. The entire film is encapsulated in this scene where, absurdly, even a married couple who love each other must share protracted, fraught exchanges of unbearable sexual tension before they finally get into bed together (offscreen, heavily implied by a cuckoo clock— you wait and see). Maybe it isn’t the serious work that McCarey wanted to be recognised for, but what better product of the Hays Code than a film about the hang-ups and strictures of a judgemental, censorious society futilely, if frustratingly, impeding the natural course of things.