Look at the beautiful man in the tux in the center of the frame. Look where he's looking. Look at what he cares about, the only thing he cares about, the reaction, the opinion, the approval of the woman he loves but is in the process of divorcing, the woman who loves him but is out for the evening with another man, the one across the table, the one she's engaged to marry and cannot, in all honesty and in spite of his millions, bear to touch.
Oh, but it's a comedy! This divine comedy, the warmest and gentlest and most grownup of all the Cary Grant screwballs,* the one where the mutual affection is the most evident and believable and—this is key—the one where the scorecard is the most even. There is no upper hand in this film, no wrong or right, and no calculation. Nobody loves more. Nobody is tricked, and what looks like trickery is actually persuasion that succeeds without much effort. There is a world of difference between being pushed and wanting to be pulled.
The Awful Truth is a story of two supremely elegant adults behaving like buffoons in order to prove a point, which is that there is this couple occupying this orbit and then there is the rest of the world. What starts as a flurry of misunderstandings and mutual betrayals—a husband and wife (Jerry and Lucy Warriner, played by Grant and Irene Dunne) who each believe the other has cheated—quickly snowballs into a blizzard, with the idea of divorce raised almost as an aside and then immediately ratified as a dare. What follows is cheerful sabotage, a series of aborted engagements, fisticuffs with foreigners, cornpone impersonations, and a custody fight over a dog. It's steeped in humiliation and small gestures of genuine caring and a blithe ignorance of reality, which of course is why screwball comedies were invented in the first place.
To wit: in the second scene of the movie, Irene Dunne shows up at breakfast with her gigolo piano teacher while wearing this getup, which is insane in the best possible way:
But The Awful Truth is also, of course, a frothy, bubbly, lively romance, and one of its primary pleasures is simply watching the characters watch each other. There's an obvious delight that he takes when she works herself into a corner, and vice versa, with each of them waiting to see how far the other will go to get out of it—an observation mixed with both fear and awe because they know exactly how far the other will go—and then reacting with a sort of radiant spousal pride when they actually get there. This is what generosity looks like, and devotion, and nothing in the world is sexier, funnier, or more joyous than that. It is a perfect film.
Best line: Dunne's reaction to a performance by Jerry's ditzy date, a nightclub singer called Dixie Belle Lee: "I guess it was easier for her to change her name than for her whole family to change theirs."
Runner-up: Grant to Lucy's new fiancé (Ralph Bellamy): "I know how I’d feel if I was sitting with a girl and her husband walked in."
Dunne, busy reading a letter and not glancing up: "I'll bet you do."
BUT HOW CARY GRANT IS IT?
On a scale of 0 to Cary Grant, I award this picture 10 CARY GRANTS
Character: Jerry Warriner
Occupation: None! Not even a hint of a job, although he's clearly loaded. All he does is follow his estranged wife around and play the piano with his dog.
Overall film quality: Gold, Jerry, gold. A+ in every way.
Chemistry w/costar: Peerless. My general feeling is, if you didn’t have chemistry with Cary Grant, you were probably a stick. And I don’t mean a metaphorical stick, I mean literally a stick. But Irene Dunne was undoubtedly in his top five (I might even say top three).
Cad vs. charm scale: All charm! His behavior is admittedly sketchy at the start—where he's just spent two weeks larking around Manhattan with some other bird while telling his wife he's in Florida—but there's nothing genuinely cruel or dishonorable about him.
Costume fit & flair: Multiple tuxedo alerts, plus a short striped nightgown worn with a pair of white socks in a conveniently breezy bedroom.
Fox scale: 8 out of 10—so gorgeous, obviously, so on the cusp, but he still looks so very young.
Gray scale: n/a
Screwball scale: Off the charts!
Romance scale: Off the charts!
Tearjerker scale: Does not register.
Essential Cary Grant-ness: This is it, the film that made Cary Grant "CARY GRANT," the first that took the measure of everything he had and tuned it in precisely the right way. Nobody else could do what he did in this movie. Watch the way he walks across a room and then watch him in that jujitsu scene and again during the recital. Nobody looked like that and spoke like that and moved like that and made you believe it all. Nobody.
* A small pause here for Holiday, but on the whole I do not consider Holiday a screwball comedy, or much of a comedy at all. Holiday lives on its own exalted plane as an entirely different kind of perfection.
** Topper was supposed to be my second Year of Cary Grant film but it's streaming nowhere, so here we are instead, since I already own The Awful Truth on DVD. Of course everybody and their grandma should own The Awful Truth on DVD, and if you don't, what are you thinking? My condolences, I guess. It's time for you to do a priority check and get your life in order.