The Awful Truth: Divorce, McCarey Style

The Awful Truth: Divorce, McCarey Style

On Film / Essays — Apr 19, 2018

His father, Thomas McCarey, was a well-known Hollywood boxing promoter, his mother a Frenchwoman, Leona, after whom he was named. He tried prizefighting himself—as a middleweight—but, at the urging of his upwardly mobile father, went to law school. In his own bid for greater respectability, Thomas sold his sports arena and opened a liquor store: both were frequented by movie people. The son, handsome and dark-haired, and a good student, practiced briefly after graduating from University of Southern California Law School, but it wasn’t for him. After falling down the shaft of an elevator, he sued, won five thousand dollars in damages, and invested the windfall in a copper mine—that went bust. A talented pianist, he wanted to be a professional songwriter and wrote hundreds of songs. We should count ourselves lucky that we’ve never heard of any of them, because if Leo McCarey had succeeded as a composer, he may not have become the filmmaking genius who brought these odd and often contradictory gifts and experiences to the cinema. Pugilism and passion, savoir faire and down-home bluntness, earthy humor and religious transcendence, custard pies and jealous wives. And music everywhere, characters singing and playing the piano, or the drums, dancing, time speeding up and slowing down.

As a director, McCarey would become a master of improvisation, and his scripts read like his early CV—they are full of holes and hard to pin down, chaotic and spontaneous, quicksilver and intuitive. Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch, to whom he was compared, had more sustained careers—Capra more good films, Lubitsch more great ones. But at his best, McCarey was better than Capra and equal to Lubitsch. His claims to greatness, reaching far back into silent film, include Laurel and Hardy two-reelers; the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup (1933); a beloved melodrama that, astonishingly, he wrote and directed twice—as Love Affair in 1939 and, in 1957, as An Affair to Remember; and two surprise blockbusters, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), gentle Catholic comedies starring Bing Crosby that reflect McCarey’s own devout Catholicism and feeling for the workings of divine providence.

At a young age (given as twenty in some reports, twenty-two in others), McCarey married (for life) his childhood sweetheart; around the same time, seeking fun but also stability, he followed up contacts in the movie industry and was hooked on the spot. With a job as a third assistant to Tod Browning at Universal, he hung out on sets, took on chores, even called himself a “script girl.” Adept as a gag writer, he soon left and went to Hal Roach Studios, where he worked from 1923 to ’29, becoming a full-time writer and director of shorts. There, his most significant contribution (for which he got credit only much later in life) was the pairing of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and he made some of their best films and worked uncredited on others. They were stars of the studio (Harold Lloyd had just left), which competed with Mack Sennett in a golden age that also featured such clowns as W. C. Fields, Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton.

With his range of experience, McCarey moved easily into sound, directing a variety of talkies for Pathé, Paramount, Fox, and United Artists, but soon found himself pigeonholed in pure comedy, his gifts exploited in the service of personae already established, like Fields and Mae West. McCarey wanted creative autonomy, which is why he wasn’t eager to work with the Marx Brothers, though Duck Soup would be their best film. Even so, it’s not until the deliriously antic Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) that you finally see him get the chance to bring the free-form exuberance of silent film into the sound era and also reach for something deeper.

“Replace custard pies with words—words as projectiles, soaring, tumbling, overlapping—and you have The Awful Truth, right up to the Sennett-style chase that ushers in the ending.”

Most accounts date the swelling of the director’s ambition to do something more serious to after the death of his father, whom he adored, in 1936—a loss amplified by his inability to attend the funeral. (He’d been stricken ill by contaminated milk that cast and crew had drunk on the set of—of all things—a Lloyd picture called The Milky Way.) Hints of longing and dislocation are apparent in some of McCarey’s earlier work, but the theme of loss comes explicitly to the fore in his twin masterpieces of 1937: Make Way for Tomorrow, that marvel of empathy about a couple cut adrift in old age, and its comic counterpoint, the one that won McCarey his first of two directing Oscars, The Awful Truth. Though Cary Grant as the philandering husband (that Florida tan!) and Irene Dunne as the possibly adulterous wife keep a light tone throughout, the comedy mirrors the more somber film in showing lovers finding their way back to each other through shared memories of the past. Capra may have made the film that came to be considered the first screwball comedy, that offhand little 1934 farce called It Happened One Night (Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century coming in a close second, later the same year), but it was McCarey who brought the balletic physicality and pratfall humor of silent film to the talky genre with The Awful Truth, the greatest screwball of them all. His long apprenticeship in two-reelers allowed him to develop his sense of timing and specific bits that would run through all of his films.

Custard pies wouldn’t make it into sound, but hats would: gentlemen’s hats, bowlers, homburgs, boaters, fedoras, top hats—symbols of male decorum, crushed, swapped, run over, totaled, vanquished by animals. The wire fox terrier Mr. Smith (the venerable Skippy, who also played Asta in the Thin Man series) is the hat snatcher in The Awful Truth, suggesting the nakedness and vulnerability of the men so shorn, men thereby reduced to farcical archetype of cuckold or gigolo. (In The Bells of St. Mary’s, Bing Crosby’s priest is greeting the nuns of his new diocese, and they begin to titter uncontrollably; unbeknownst to the father, a cat on the mantelpiece behind him frolics with his hat.) A henpecked lawyer tries to talk Dunne’s character out of divorce as his wife nags noisily in the background. Authority figures have only a gossamer hold on their dignity; adults are such in name only.

There was a direct line from vaudeville and music hall to the slapstick outrages and irrationality of early sound film. The talkies were hungry for actors and comedians of all kinds, and the studios were freewheeling laboratories of experimentation, with few rules. This was especially true of Paramount, where McCarey directed Duck Soup. That film’s blend of hilarity, nonsense, and lyricism is pure McCarey. The mirror scene with no mirror, in which three brothers in identical nightshirts take turns reflecting one another, did not originate with McCarey. As Gerald Weales points out in Canned Goods as Caviar: American Film Comedy of the 1930s, both Chaplin and Max Linder had performed a variant of the idea. But neither was anywhere near as intricate or as moving as the one in Duck Soup.

There were connections, noted by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, between the antirealist art of Dada and surrealism and the glorious non sequiturs of Fields and the Marx Brothers. The Hollywood practitioners wouldn’t describe it in such high-flown terms, but Groucho himself once acknowledged the family resemblance in nonsense writing from Lewis Carroll to Morrie Ryskind. Even those slapstick two-reelers that seem thrown together on the set by men who would never have called themselves artists were intuitively finding their way to a form. James Agee argues the case when he describes a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler directed by McCarey that was devoted almost entirely to pie-throwing: “The first pies were thrown thoughtfully, almost philosophically. Then innocent bystanders began to get caught into the vortex. At full pitch it was Armageddon. But everything was calculated so nicely that until late in the picture, when havoc took over, every pie made its special kind of point and piled on its special kind of laugh.” Replace custard pies with words—words as projectiles, soaring, tumbling, overlapping, collapsing—and you have The Awful Truth, right up to the Sennett-style chase that ushers in the ending of the film with a pileup of chaos and pure motion.

Endings are always difficult in screwball comedy (Hawks’s were almost invariably weak), because of the anarchic natures of the lovers, who don’t fit the pattern of romantic comedy and its denouements as practiced from the Greeks and the Romans through Shakespeare and beyond. The reestablishment of order, that moment of collective celebration when the couple is reintegrated into society, seems anathema to screwball, wherein couples stake out turf in opposition to convention, a private world of their own making with its own language and in-jokes. Society as such exists more to be ridiculed than embraced. There are no children, no money worries.

Lucy and Jerry Warriner inhabit a not-quite-real perch alongside society but askew, at an ironic distance. They may belong to the right clubs, know the right people, and appear on the society pages, but they are not quite upper-crust, not the cultural arbiters or rich blue bloods who have to be careful of their position. They are scapegraces, his gentlemanliness no less in question than her virtue, orphans in each other’s care. One of the breathtaking qualities of The Awful Truth is the way we feel these two people, on the verge of divorce, rediscovering each other and their love as they go along, bound together by a matching sense of humor. There’s a whole subset of screwball comedy dubbed the comedy of remarriage by Stanley Cavell, but the rediscovery theme runs through McCarey’s other films too. Make Way for Tomorrow features two old people (played by Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) going back to a place in their marriage where they can feel love all over again, better and deeper for the trials it has had to overcome. In Love Affair, Charles Boyer and Dunne fall in love, fail to meet as planned at the Empire State Building, and are finally reconciled after a prolonged and painful but perhaps necessary separation, as if they were not ready for each other the first time around.

Yes, this is a constant motif of romantic comedy: a couple at cross-purposes at the beginning, who have to endure a trial by fire and, given a second chance, are reborn into a greater sense of themselves, a strength from compromise. But in McCarey the transformations have religious undertones—the two have to prove themselves worthy not only of each other but of love itself.

McCarey’s gifts as an auteur are the hardest to describe, or to assess in terms of a visual “signature,” because his brilliance was in timing, in the structure and rhythm of his films, in the flow whereby a dismal situation could turn on a dime into a humorous or even a sublime moment, an aria could break up into giggles during a crescendo and convey ecstatic surrender. (See Dunne at the piano when Grant clatters to the floor along with his chair.) Everyone knows of Jean Renoir’s tribute, that McCarey “understands people better than anyone in Hollywood,” and you see it over and over again, empathy for all God’s creatures great and small, animal and human, geezers and toddlers. A baby Jesus born during a children’s Nativity show; a six-year-old Joseph in the same play fumbling and persevering and ad-libbing as he knocks at the innkeeper’s door; an old couple falling back in love. He had an uncanny gift for eliciting natural behavior and then taking it up a notch, and his empathy flows with the ease of a man who doesn’t see species and ages as fixed categories (the boy playing Joseph in The Bells of St. Mary’s is more mature than the supposedly adult Warriners), who instinctively mixes the beautiful and the clownish, the sublime and the ridiculous, the physical and the spiritual.

For McCarey, gender was fluid before the term was invented. If he is not as consistently drawn to role reversal as, say, Hawks, still, a certain thread of this mutability runs through his films. There’s the image early in Ruggles of Red Gap in which a pickled Charles Laughton, a valet on his way to liberation from servitude in the American West, is draped around a horse on a merry-go-round in Paris. Throughout the film, Laughton, robust of body, delicate of speech, walks trippingly, as if his feet had a lisp. Or Oliver Hardy, in We Faw Down (1928), wearing a lampshade as a tutu, dancing coquettishly around his living room. Earlier in the same film, there’s a moment during a boys’ night out when one of their party-girl dates is pinching Stan Laurel playfully. Giggle, giggle. Then a little more aggressively. Tweaking his nose, hitting him, hitting him harder. He sits passively, trying to get into the spirit but baffled and humiliated.

McCarey’s twists on gender norms are less explicit than those in other screwball comedies. They involve going against expectation and performance and humiliation, comic self-flagellation: Jerry crashing to the floor, Lucy impersonating the tacky Dixie Belle Lee, the idea that Lucy may have committed an amorous indiscretion by custom permitted only to men. Or her protracted comic mortification on the dance floor with her aw-shucks suitor Dan Leeson—a type played to perfection, here and elsewhere, by Ralph Bellamy—a steer-wrestling duet that, like a Laurel and Hardy scene, involves a slow build, three different attitudes, and milking the gag longer than you expect.

Ultimately, McCarey’s films elude both verbal description and visual analysis, because they are more like music; the originality and intensity come from the changing expressions on the characters’ faces, irony, self-mockery, love, despair crisscrossing like jazz notes. There’s the breathtaking balancing act of wit and ardor at the end of Love Affair when Boyer second-guesses Dunne while recounting why he didn’t make it to the top of the Empire State Building, both circling around the agonizing truth while entering into the pretense that it was he, not she, who failed to show up. Or the end of Make Way for Tomorrow, when Bondi and Moore, on the eve of losing each other, possibly forever, recapture the spirit of their marriage. Against all expectations, the city conspires to lift them up, not just from the squabbling selfishness of their children but from the trials their own love has undergone through years of struggle, family tensions, the pressure to hang on to middle-class respectability. They’re being treated like royalty at the hotel where they honeymooned, and in the ballroom they dance to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” as light as two feathers. It’s that airiness that is McCarey’s touch, a blend of the physical and the mystical. He creates a sacred aura, the way he sacramentalizes the union of the man and woman in an island chapel in Love Affair and again in An Affair to Remember: they kneel before Christ in “true” marriage, before they even know they’re in love.

Which brings us back to Grant and Dunne, the greatest of all screwball couples, who became comic divinities thanks to the magic in McCarey’s madness.

Grant tried desperately to get out of the movie. He didn’t like the loose script, and thought it stretched credulity that a man would cheat on anyone as beautiful as Dunne. So unnerved was he by McCarey’s free-form style, he even offered money to get out of his contract. At this point, he was not an unknown quantity. He’d appeared as a lead with Mae West in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong, and with Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), and he’d come to represent light fun in a number of now-forgotten comedies. He hadn’t expressed a personality of his own, however, and if anything, his slick, slightly vacuous handsomeness worked against him. Some have argued that Paramount dropped the ball when it let him go in 1936, failing to recognize his potential, but how could anyone have suspected the anarchic goofball spirit that McCarey would uncover (or, for that matter, the sinister undertones that Alfred Hitchcock would mine and that are just barely suggested in The Awful Truth)? A leading man who could rough himself up—it took McCarey to entice this creature into being.

Bellamy has described the Awful Truth set as chaotic, with little script to begin with and daily rewrites as McCarey banged away at the piano, cast and crew assembled, waiting for inspiration to strike. Reportedly, even Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell worked on the screenplay. The woman credited, Viña Delmar, deserves a sidenote. Generally treated as a hack during her career in Hollywood, she also worked on Make Way for Tomorrow and had a slightly screwball backstory of her own. Brooklyn-born of vaudeville parents, she wrote a best seller called Bad Girl about unwed mothers, worked as a chorus girl, changed her name more than once. Yet surely there is some of her—whether by her pen or her biography—in the movie. One thinks of Dixie in the nightclub scene, telling of changing her name so her whole family wouldn’t have to change theirs. Viña, who worked in Hollywood with her husband, Eugene Delmar, a writer and fellow name changer, and continued to write stories to declining fortunes, once gained notoriety when, as a gag, she placed an ad in a paper to rent out her husband for five thousand dollars a year.

One can imagine Dunne doing something similar, and Grant—the Grant unleashed by McCarey—jubilantly playing along, and somehow going one better. Andrew Sarris pinpoints the exact moment when Grant becomes Grant. The scene is near the beginning of the film, after Jerry has acquired his two-weeks-in-Florida suntan at the athletic club and comes home with friends, expecting a warm greeting from his wife. Instead of Lucy, it is Mr. Smith who greets him warmly. There’s a little unease in the air, especially when kind friends point to a stack of unopened mail for Lucy. As they chat and mark time, standing or sitting in conventional drawing-room style, Grant alights on a sofa back and crosses his legs at an odd angle, disrupting the perpendicular lines of the right-thinking and upstanding society friends gathered to witness the scandal about to unfold.

Grant never gave McCarey the credit the director deserved for his role in the actor’s stardom, and maybe that’s understandable. For one thing, it was McCarey himself—dashing, dark-haired, a fast-talker and con man—who supplied certain gestures and mannerisms that we see attaching themselves to Grant. Jerry bangs away at the piano, pops up here and there like a jack-in-the-box, and yet manages to preserve his drop-dead allure. And is it too much of a stretch to see another McCarey collaborator—Charley Chase—as an influence? The actor-writer, whom McCarey always credited as an inspiration, was hugely popular in silent film, and as a protagonist distinguished himself from the comics around him by playing it semistraight—that is, never wearing costumes, generally playing a hapless hero, a ladies’ man, but one who performs athletic stunts as well. In other words, that improbable combination of leading man and goofball—and the missing link between the silent clowns (Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy) and Grant.


Even more remarkable in some ways was McCarey’s unleashing of Dunne. She’d played strong, even feminist, heroines (in Cimarron, in 1931, Ann Vickers in 1933). She wasn’t exactly prim—she’d made Theodora Goes Wild the year before The Awful Truth, in which a proper daughter of Connecticut blue bloods is revealed to be the author of scandalous romance novels. But like so many before and since, Dunne didn’t take comedy seriously, preferring melodrama, and she was sufficiently committed to her singing career to stipulate that she sing in every film. Bellamy described (to writer Charles Higham) the scene in which he and Dunne play the raucous duet of “Home on the Range” on the piano. They were horsing around and harmonizing when she suddenly became mortified at her own off-pitch silliness and stopped cold. “Cut!” yelled McCarey, and printed one of the most brilliant scenes in the movie. Ultimately, Dunne became great friends with McCarey over the course of the shoot, and that trust allowed her to go wilder than Theodora, and suggest a good deal more.

The source of the movie, a 1922 play by Arthur Richman, was made into two other films before McCarey catapulted it into an Oscar-winning home run. When you consider the context, you can understand its appeal: In 1922, women had recently won the vote, flappers and freethinkers were in the air, with their notions of women having their own lives and appetites. Even divorce was less taboo, provided it was done the right way (with a suit against the philandering husband).

Aside from a fatal absence of star charisma, the play and earlier film versions seem to have focused, more conventionally, on the ambiguous outing of the heroine as unfaithful and the rescuing of her tattered reputation. In this movie, it’s Dan’s mother who arrives with the gossip about Lucy, in a scene straight out of McCarey’s life—the divorcing couple are going over papers with Dan concerning their busted coal mine. It’s hard to imagine any other actress drawling like Dunne: “The lady’s name needs clearin’, pardner.” And could anyone have prolonged the clarification as mischievously as Grant? Fingers crossed behind his back, Jerry bemoans his own unworthiness and extols Lucy’s virtue. Probably the most significant difference is that, in the play and its faithful iterations, the lady is exculpated clearly and unequivocally. Not so in the McCarey.

The review of The Awful Truth in the New York Times of November 5, 1937, by B. R. Crisler found the movie to be a lot of fun, praising its “pure poetry of motion.” He astutely grasped the way “maturity exists only to be deflated into abject juvenility.” Yet rather strangely—such were the notions of progress at the time—he also finds the film reactionary, if boldly so, a daring throwback to the physical comedy of the silents just when the talkies had introduced progress in the form of “spoken wit and adultness.” Actually, from the vantage point of 2018, the dialogue seems pretty damn adult, and daring as well, when compared with the norms of Hollywood under censorship. There’s enough innuendo to wonder why Hays Office brows were not rising, and injunctions being issued forthwith.

After Dunne’s glamorous entrance in a cloud of white fur, on the arm of voice teacher Armand (Alexander D’Arcy), an awkward confrontation is in the offing. Lucy’s aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham) has left, saying that “four’s a crowd,” whereupon McCarey gives us a series of two-shots, three-shots, and close-ups, emphasizing the three-way tensions. Armand is like one of those louche characters in Henry James, the Italian music master who appears as a fortune hunter and whose actions with the American lovely remain ambiguous. After Jerry has insulted Armand, the latter puffs himself up, declaring, “I am a great teacher, not a great lover,” at which Lucy quickly and unthinkingly intercedes: “That’s right, Armand, no one could ever accuse you of being a great lover”—slight emphasis on “you” and “great”—and then, realizing what she’s said, chokes and immediately detours.

Stanley Cavell has noted the absence of mothers in screwball comedy, but this goes back to the nineteenth-century novel as it charts heroines who emerge as freestanding agents, fully conscious beings, largely through the absence of mothers. In a society of increasing individualism, female protagonists are allowed to journey outside the immediate family for support. In Jane Austen, then Henry James, aunts and other surrogates move in as putative chaperones, releasing the heroine from the all-powerful strings of maternal attachment.

If ever there was a liberal chaperone, it’s Aunt Patsy, a woman who refuses to retire to the sidelines. And if ever there was a heroine capable of self-definition, it’s Dunne’s Lucy Warriner. In the guiding yet liberating hands of McCarey, the actress improvises one of the great female protagonists with a voice of her own. From songbird to Dixie impersonator, she rides the wings of invention, along with the cunningly unstoppable Grant. In a film so loose-jointed and buoyant that there is hardly a moment of letdown or ennui, they use their wits and their bodies first to separate, then to come back together, making sure everything will be the same, only different!