"The Awful Truth" (Leo McCarey, 1937) When Leo McCarey accepted his Oscar for Best Director for "The Awful Truth," (which also won "Best Picture" that year) he famously said in his acceptance speech "You gave it to me for the wrong one!" Having not seen "Make Way for Tomorrow" (the other one he did that year), one has to content oneself with the reputation of the Award-winner, which I was familiar with because of an in-joke Howard Hawks inserted into "Bringing Up Baby" a year later* But "The Awful Truth" was the crowd-pleaser (allowing Cary Grant to become a top-billed star--as opposed to here, where Irene Dunne leads), whereas "Make Way..." was a box-office disappointment.
Based on a successful stage-play by Arthur Richman (which had already been filmed twice before), "The Awful Truth" belongs to that sub-category of "Romantic Comedy," "Much Ado About Nothing," where squabbling couples take the consequences to the edge of divorcement, and back again.** The scriptwriters were Vina Delmar and Sydney Buchman (who wrote "Holiday," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Talk of the Town," "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," and was thanked by being blacklisted for refusing to name names). McCarey kept things moving briskly and encouraged the actors to ad-lib to increase the pace (McCarey also directed pictures featuring the Marx Brothers, where ad-libbing didn't need to be encouraged and, practically, couldn't be prevented!) Grant took to the technique particularly well--he wasn't comfortable in his role, and would have preferred to play Ralph Bellamy's part.*** His Jerry Warriner became a template for Grant's light comedy roles to follow. He's matched by Irene Dunne "the best actress to never win an Oscar," who may not excell at the off-hand remark, but knew how to fill space with a sarcastic faux-laugh. She could also effortlessly play foolish while maintaining a glamorous veneer--a trick she uses to great advantage in "The Awful Truth." Like the best of the "Much Ado.." comedies, "The Awful Truth" has a cynical bite to it, extolling the virtues of marriage, while acknowledging the way the new wine of romance turns to vinegar with time...and inattention. It also employs the comedy-generator of how taken away, one fights even harder to gain it back.
The comedy of "The Awful Truth" also has a buffered side to it. Everyone remains very genteel while seething a bit inside, and no one goes for a hay-maker remark, but are satisfied that the recipient feels the wind of the passing blow. Time and society would allow the knives to come out later, but for "The Awful Truth," just the suggestion of insult was enough.
Entertaining and a crowd-pleaser, "The Awful Truth" pales a bit in comparsion with its more savage progenitors, but to contemporary audiences it must have seemed like a roller-coaster ride.
* In "Bringing Up Baby," Susan (Katherine Hepburn) with most of the cast in jail, pretends to be a wise-cracking moll and refers to the hapless David as if he's a mob-boss named "Jerry The Nipper," which is a laugh-line regarding Grant's character in "The Awful Truth." Orson Welles also mentions McCarey's Oscar remark in his recorded remarks in "This is Orson Welles."
**Besides, "Much Ado...," such films in the sub-category include "The Philadelphia Story," "Private Lives," "His Girl Friday," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," etc. Cary Grant excelled at them
*** Which provided another joke for Hawks in "His Girl Friday." When Grant's character is asked to sum up his ex-wife's (Rosalind Russell) fiancee, says "He reminds me of that actor...Ralph Bellamy," apt because Bellamy played the part!