Monday, March 8, 2010

Film #15: The Awful Truth (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (in which I painstakingly lay out the plot; spoilers and all. Fair warning):

Jerry Warriner returns from a supposed trip to Florida to find his wife, Lucy, not at home. When she returns with her dashing music instructor, she explains that they were delayed overnight due to a car breakdown and had to stay the night in an inn. Jerry becomes suspicious and begins to level his accusations. During the snide grilling, Lucy discovers that Jerry may not have actually been in Florida. She becomes suspicious. Things get heated and the two end up filing for divorce.
The divorce proceedings come off, and the couple have only to wait out a 90-day period before it is official. During this period, Lucy starts to get friendly with her new neighbor, Dan Leeson, a kindly, if simple, rancher from Oklahoma. Jerry, under the guise of apathy, openly sabotages the blooming romance by continually highlighting the vast differences between Lucy and Dan. The marriage is off.

With Lucy and Dan's relationship over, Jerry Warriner begins to see a different lady of his own high society sect. When Lucy discovers this, she goes for a little tete-a-tete and decides to torpedo Jerry's engagement in the same way he did hers. Her method is to pose as his drunken sister at a social event and insinuate that Jerry is equally incorrigible. That marriage is off.

After this second detonation of a budding marriage and some automobile trouble, Jerry and Lucy end up stuck in their old cabin in the woods. The two mull things over, and realize that they still do love each other. Just before the 90-day deadline on their divorce, they admit their love for one another and all is peachy keen once again.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing & before any research on the film):

UUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh... Man, do I HATE screwball comedies, and this movie is screwball to the absolute core. Thing is, there are virtually no technical flaws to be found in this movie, in my view. Directing? Great. Acting? Phenomenal. Set design? Costumes? Flawless. Dialogue? Sharp as can be. Characters? Ah-HA!!! And this is where I go off.

There is nothing specific to The Awful Truth that I dislike. My problem is with almost the entire genre of "screwball" films. And I've really, really tried. I have. Over the last decade or so, I've watched about a half dozen "classic" screwball films. In pondering them, I think I can pinpoint what separates the ones that I'm OK with versus the ones that make me feel like I wasted 90 minutes of my life. Here goes...

I like It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey. I hate Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. What separates them? Well, one thing is that Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story star Katherine Hepburn, who I can't stand in any role (I'll delve into this in a future post, no doubt). On top of that, though, the latter listed films seem to lack any characters who I can relate to and sympathize with. It Happened One Night had an earthy wit to it, and My Man Godfrey had William Powell, who was the absolute man. Not to mention that these two films were grounded at least a little more in everyday problems. The rest are all about high society types looking for love, cracking wise, and having "madcap hijinks" all along the way.

Here's where The Awful Truth is at its screwiest:

It's a yuk-fest, alright. I'd rather watch my cat bathe himself.

What it comes down to is that I simply didn't care one bit. The two main characters, Lucy and Jerry, are filthy rich and totally self-absorbed. Sure, they're good-looking, clever and playful, but what's the point of the film? I think I understand the appeal - it's the same reason people watch reality shows like The Celebrity Apprentice, Celebrity Rehab, or Celebrity (name of reality show here) - people are fascinated with the rich and wealthy. People are even more fascinated when the rich and wealthy make asses of themselves. I'm not one who's drawn by such things, so perhaps this contributes to my apathy for these films.

I think that this is perfectly illustrated in The Awful Truth by the way that the character Dan Lesson is portrayed. He's an Oklahoma rancher who's obviously a well-meaning, kind person, but one who lacks the cosmopolitan sophistication of Jerry and Lucy. Well, the movie makes Dan out to be an utter buffoon fit for nothing more than Jerry to cunningly embarrass and condescend to. I just wanted to pat Dan on the back and tell him, "Look, ol' hoss, you don't want nothing to do with these backwards Yankees. Get on back to ranch, do what you do best, and leave these well-dressed a-holes to themselves."

So you don't think I'm trying to destroy this film, let me reiterate that the film does what it intends to with incredible skill. In fact, the only reason it was tolerable at all to me were the strong performances of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, though Dunne's New England affectations annoyed me a bit. Those two knew how to balance the ridiculous with the calculated very well, though the ridiculosity (it's a word now) gets to be a bit much.

The awful truth is that I can't say that this is a bad movie at all - it would be insulting to the highly skilled people who created it. But I have to give a qualified recommendation only to people who liked the films that I mentioned before in the "I hate these screwball movies" roll call. Otherwise, stay away.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love It (done after some research on the film):

After reading the many gushing reviews of this film (here's the fellow at TIME magazine's feelings), I almost feel like a cretin for disliking it so much. I don't care, though. I still don't like it.

The reasons this film gets cited as so influential are several. One is that it really launched Cary Grant's career and forged the character that he would play in essentially every movie for the rest of his life - the smooth, easy-talking, quick-witted loverman. If you've seen any of Cary Grant's other movies (Hitchcock or otherwise), you'll see the first incarnation of whatever character he played in those films in The Awful Truth. He was so damn good at it right out of the box, there's no wonder he carved such a massive place in films with it.  

Here's a mildly amusing scene that illustrates pretty much everything that I like and loathe (mostly loathe) in the film:

I was also reminded that the basic tale of The Awful Truth is ripped right out of the pages of Shakespeare; Much Ado About Nothing, mostly. That old tale had Beatrice and Benedict, two head-strong types who loved each other but wouldn't admit it, go through all kinds of shenanigans before facing the facts of their feelings. Yes, I have read that play. Yes, I have seen the Kenneth Brannagh adaptation. Yes, I hated them all.

What can I say? This is obviously a type of film that I don't like. I've tried my damnedest to figure out why, and even to have a more open mind and just enjoy the comedy. I haven't been able to do it for most of these films, though. I will be getting another chance soon, however, as His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve are coming up soon on the list. We'll see if I've vented all of my vitriol on this subject before then.

That's a wrap (Thank the Lord). 15 down. 90 shows to go.

Coming Soon: Dodsworth (1936):

I've never heard of this one, and I have no idea what to expect. These are the moments when I am often pleasantly surprised and end up discovering some of my favorite movies.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out...