So. A couple times in here I have mentioned that I’m not a big fan of “idiot plots” in romantic comedies, where the whole conflict of the film is something that could be solved in about three minutes if the principal characters simply talked to each other like grownups. In the case of The Awful Truth, however, an idiot plot sparks off the whole story – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a well-to-do couple that gets into a bit of a tiff at the start of the film – a tiff big enough to start divorce proceedings. But the divorce won’t be final for another 90 days, and they keep bumping into each other – accidentally and on purpose – and start to have second thoughts about cutting ties.
To be fair, the grounds for divorce seem considerable. Jerry returns from a solo trip to find his wife is not at home – and hasn’t opened his most recent letter to her. She turns up several minutes later dressed to the nines, and accompanied by her music teacher Armand; the pair had been out of town together at a concert the previous night, Lucy says, but then “Armand’s car broke down” and they had to stay where they were. However, Armand is single and suave, and Jerry is of course suspicious. But then the defensive Lucy turns up evidence that Jerry’s trip was not to Florida, as he claimed – so why is he accusing her of duplicity at the very moment he’s practicing it?
All of that gets dropped instantly once the real divorce-proceedings plot starts. This is actually the second time I’ve seen the film, and I didn’t even remember the initial argument that started it off (it’s bothering me a little now that we never learn where Jerry did go instead of Florida); what I remember instead are all the comedic bits, as they are fantastic. Some almost seem ahead of their time; one sequence sees Jerry and Lucy each bringing a separate rebound date to the same supper club, to rub things in each others’ faces a little. Lucy’s new beau Dan (Ralph Bellamy) is an Oklahoma ranch owner and oilman, while Jerry’s date Dixie (Joyce Compton) is a showgirl at the club. Jerry and Lucy’s conversation is entirely made of one-upmanship (Dan and Dixie awkwardly looking on) until Dixie excuses herself to go do her act. The others settle in to watch – and discover together that maybe Jerry should have vetted Dixie’s act a little before boasting about it.
I’ve rewatched that scene about three times now; Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s reactions crack me up every time. Throughout the whole film, in fact, they consistently crack me up – especially Cary Grant, whose comic timing is impeccable. I was first shown this film during rehearsals for a play, when the director wanted to teach the cast about the screwball comedy tone she wanted for our own show. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne were a perfect case study for our actors.
But my own favorite character, both times watching, is a supporting player – Cecil Cunningham, as Lucy’s “Aunt Patsy”, a single socialite Lucy moves in with during the Warriners’ fallout. Aunt Patsy is no genteel wallflower – she is a lively snarker with some of the best lines in the whole movie. In one scene, Lucy is showing Patsy a “Dear John” letter she’s written for one of her rebound beaux – and the unlucky gent turns up unexpectedly, forcing Lucy to break up with him in person. As he’s leaving, he sneers that Lucy has “certainly taught him about women”, and in response, Patsy hands him the letter, quipping “here’s your diploma.”
The screwball comedy looms large on my list, but I have to admit that this one will be hard to top.