Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Awful Truth (1937)

Dir. Leo McCarey
Writ. Vina Delmar, based on the play by Arthur Richman
w/ Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, and Cecil Cunningham

Cary Grant (as Jerry) and Irene Dunne (as Lucy) exchange lithe glances and glib tongues with such chemistry that nearly all the other actors may as well be house plants. Often an impossibly formidable leading man, Grant knows not to step on anyone else's toes. Thanks to Dunne's innate talents, he doesn't seem to have to worry about it. She pops in and out of sets like calm in a garden after a cool dust of hail. Her gentleman callers do the same, and there we've got our hot potato. The couple decides to file for divorce and the antics ensue.

What's so mind-boggling about a comedy like this is that you're never really sure what's going on, it doesn't really matter that you aren't, and yet surprises and delights abound where usually a loose plot would unravel, get stale, and lose you. But between the two leads and Howard Hawkes' effervescent sense of the fun of the film, everything stays put, even if it hangs by a mere thread from time to time. Of course, it helps if you have an aging Aunt Patty wiling to shimmy in a knee-length to attract the attention of a bartender, and a dog that loves to play "find the hat" no matter how high he has to climb.

In a scene that would be gratuitous were it not for the era, Lucy and her new beau, Dan, sing Home on the Range together as she plays the piano. It's so awful that you expect the director to come running in dressed in a wifebeater and boxer briefs to yell, "End scene!" That's the epitomal humor that makes this flick work. A lesser director would have had a chandalier crash or maybe a button pop on a matronly dress, but Hawkes just lets the natural disaster take its course.

The film's comedic exhale arrives when the pair get pulled over by motorcycle policemen and Lucy connives to ditch the car. Being nice policemen, they give the couple rides to Aunt Patty's drafty cabin. Where else would a divorcing couple want to spend their last night of wedded bliss than a cantankerous wooden hovel in the middle of nowhere?

A lot of joy to watch, the best part is knowing that Cary Grant hadn't even really hit his heydey when this came out. He had, in truth, hardly begun to clear his throat.

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