The Awful Truth (1937)

Directed by Leo McCarey. Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D’Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont, Esther Dale. Columbia.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -1
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?NR USCCB ?NR

Content advisory: Blasé treatment of divorce-and-remarriage theme, marital deception and generally dishonest behavior.

From a National Catholic Register review

By Steven D. Greydanus

If you like your Cary Grant debonair, gallant, or at least charming, watch Holiday, The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby. If you want to see him pretending to be superficial and unprincipled before revealing his true colors, try Charade.

But if the idea of Grant playing a character who really is narcissistic, manipulative and unscrupulous appeals to you — and I can’t think why it would, at least in a light romantic comedy, but clearly I’m in the minority here — then the highly regarded The Awful Truth is for you, along with the even more popular near-remake His Girl Friday.

Both The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday costar Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy as two-thirds of a romantic triangle, with Irene Dunne taking the third part in The Awful Truth (Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday). In both films, the heroine is divorced from Grant and engaged to Bellamy, a slow-speaking, honest, decent, corn-fed type on short apron strings to his mother.

In both films, Grant is sharp and shrewd, manipulating the situation to get his wife back while ostensibly professing that he doesn’t deserve her, that Bellamy will do much better by her, etc., though in fact he’s out to make Bellamy look ridiculous. By the film’s end, Bellamy, disillusioned with the heroine, goes home with his mother, leaving Grant with the girl.

A key part of the problem in both films is that neither offers particularly likable or sympathetic principals, and if you don’t care whether or not the couple gets (or stays) together, what’s the point? One should be rooting for Cary Grant to get the girl, which means he ought to deserve her — and if that’s more or less the case here, well, it’s only because the girl turns out to be no great shakes either.

The Awful Truth is far too blasé for my taste about its divorce-and-remarriage theme. Sometimes romantic comedies use divorce to lead one or both of its protagonists to recognize how much they really belong together; but what strikes me here is how little the relationship ever seems to matter to either of him, how much of the film was spent with the two of them trying to show up the other, and ultimately how trivial and unmeaningful their eventual rapprochement seems.

The film jokes about how relationships have to be based on trust, satirically observing that neither spouse trusts the other — and neither deserves trust. Unfortunately, this is still pretty much the case by the time the credits roll; nothing has really changed.

I guess if I had to choose, I would pick The Awful Truth as less off-putting than His Girl Friday. For one thing, Grant’s character here is a little less obnoxious, or at least he and Dunne are almost equally obnoxious, and it’s easier to feel that they really do deserve each other, if not quite to root for them to wind up together, or to feel much satisfaction in their reconciliation, such as it is.

Beyond that, where Russell in Girl Friday might really have been happy with the halfway decent Bellamy, here it’s much more obvious that not only is the Bellamy character himself less than eligible — the apron strings are clearly way too short — but the life he has to offer her on his Oklahoma ranch is definitely not the life for her.

In the end, though, The Awful Truth relies less on characters or chemistry than sheer outrageousness for comic effect. I guess it works for some people.

Tags: Screwball Comedy, Comedy, Romance

Related Content

Mail: Re: The Awful Truth

Perhaps you got up on the wrong side of the bed the day you reviewed this classic film?

The serious theme of this very funny movie is that marriage is forever. And the female star was a devout Catholic who said in old age “I’ve had one husband, one daughter, one house, and no lovers.”

Sorry, nope. I’ve seen it multiple times and stand by my contrarian review. If it’s a fault, it’s an enduring fault, one that I and my readers will have to live with.

Marriage is forever, I’ve got no problem with. But marriage is also supposed to be about trust … and romantic comedies are supposed to be about likable leads. Both are lacking here. The personal virtues of the actress are gratifying but don’t affect my take on the film. Sorry!

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Review: His Girl Friday (1940)

C | **½ | -1| Teens & Up

Call me an Albany-living mama’s boy, but when Hildy tells her male colleagues in an early scene that she’s going to be a woman, not a news-getting machine, and have babies and take care of them, and give them cod-liver oil and watch their teeth grow, and not have to worry any more about crawling up fire escapes, getting kicked out of front doors, or eating Christmas dinners in one-armed joints — well, I for one think that sounds kind of nice.

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