by Laura WilliamsFrom the 1930s until as late as the mid-’60s, American movies were subject to a production code that imposed massive restrictions upon what they could and could not show on the screen. The list of rules included regulations banning portrayals of ‘vulgarity’, ‘excessive or lustful kissing’, ‘sex perversion’ (homosexuality), and forbidding the villain from ever being allowed to get away with his crimes. The resulting films portrayed an idealised America, a reassuring social morality and an optimism about everyday life which was lacking in the decade following the Wall Street Crash.
The Awful Truth is one such film, but it deserves to be remembered as more than just another 1930s slapstick comedy. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne star as a newly separated couple, who spend the ninety days before their divorce is finalised sabotaging each other’s new romances, obviously still crazy about each other. The witty dialogue and physical humour creates a hugely underrated comedy film of a quality rarely seen since.
The couple’s misadventures culminate with Grant arriving at Dunne’s singing teacher’s house, suspecting the two are having an affair, and he tries to barge in. During a tussle with the doorman, Grant does a hilarious pratfall – almost his trademark in his early films, a talent from his vaudeville days – he lands almost entirely on his face. Eventually bursting through to the living room, he find his wife singing to a crowded room, with her teacher accompanying her on the piano. Astonished, Grant slowly takes off his hat, listening to his wife sing, then sits down awkwardly on a chair at the back, while Dunne glares at him, still singing. It’s not over yet, as Grant leans back on his chair and falls again, and the fall just keeps on going.
Eventually, he rights himself and looks over to his wife with an expression of endearing helplessness. As Dunne catches her husband’s eye in the last phrase of the piece, she laughs a little out loud – perfectly on key – and then ends the song. She’s not only realised that her husband has shown up because he’s still in love with her, but also that she’s still in love with him, and all she can do is laugh. The scene is a perfect moment in life and cinema, showing love, huge and simple, in that instant – and it gets me every time.
What makes this film even more enchanting is that much of the script was improvised. When shooting began, director Leo McCarey only had a very sketchy script for the cast to work with, and both the leads, convinced that without a script the film would be a flop, tried to walk out. (Cary Grant allegedly wrote an eight-page letter to the film studio entitled ‘Things that are wrong with this picture’.) As it turned out, Grant was the one who was wrong. Irene Dunne was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, and Grant was rocketed into super stardom, becoming one of the most sought after leading men for the next three decades.