i.e., for the birds. At least Cary Grant is still Cary Grant.
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:
Can you imagine?
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 so much as a hint of a job, although he's clearly loaded. All he does is follow his estranged wife around and accompany his dog on the piano.
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.
I did not like this movie! I didn’t even understand it and can't believe that you're meant to. Katharine Hepburn plays a (French) woman named Sylvia who disguises herself as Sylvester to help her con man father (Edmund Gwenn, that nice Santa Claus from A Miracle on 34th Street) escape the aftermath of one of his cons. On the boat from Marseilles to London they hook up with yet another swindler played by (you guessed it) Cary Grant and decide to band together to commit additional cons. These involve traipsing about the English countryside in a pair of caravans with a housemaid/“singer” and performing unfortunate vaudeville numbers for the local yokels, one of whom is an artiste that Sylvia (still playing Sylvester) falls in love with. This cat has a boho Russian girlfriend for reasons no one explains yet he falls in love with Sylvia also, after realizing she’s a she. There’s a death in there somewhere that might be a suicide, and I guess it has a happy ending, although the plot feels mostly like wandering through the middle of a John Irving novel (i.e., five or six long separate stories tied together with no indication of how they’re related) so I’m not entirely certain.
To be sure, this is a Katharine Hepburn picture (and not a good one!), and there’s an interesting scene where she realizes she’s more comfortable as Sylvester than Sylvia, but they clamp down on that angle pretty fast. Cary Grant in 1935 was also not yet CARY GRANT, although there are hints of what’s to come: he’s at least two heads taller and more gorgeous than anybody else on screen and seems perfectly at home playing a fast-talking rascal. Every other actor just seems confused.
Best line: from Hepburn to Gwenn: “Your darn tips have landed you in the soup!”
Runner-up: Hepburn to Grant: “You’ve got the mind of a pig.”
Grant: “It’s a pig’s world!”
BUT HOW CARY GRANT IS IT?
On a scale of 0 to Cary Grant, I award this picture 5 CARY GRANTS
Character: Jimmy Monkley (I did read a recap on some blog today that referred to him as “Arthur” the whole way through, which was an interesting choice but not even in the ballpark)
Overall film quality: Um...?
Chemistry w/costar: Antagonistic but palpable. You want more because you know there is more, and you know how good it is.
Cad vs. charm scale: He's mostly a cad and frankly more than a little animalistic about it. What charm there is is calculating and cruel, just another icepick in a con man's toolbox.
Costume fit & flair: Not once but twice he wears what looks to be a striped flannel suit, and he displays a regrettable penchant for cravats (see above). But there is one scene where he wanders around in a rainstorm atop a seaside cliff dressed in a long dark trench coat and a newsboy cap where you really have to stop and sigh to yourself for a minute.
Fox scale: Too young and doughy to be truly foxy, but still a dish.
Gray scale: n/a
Screwball scale: Nein nein: script, tone, and pacing are way more “screwy” than screwball.
Romance scale: Zero. It was weird to see a Cary Grant film in which Cary Grant does not play the romantic lead, but even Cary Grant had to start somewhere.
Tearjerker scale: I was sad that this movie was terrible.
Essential Cary Grant-ness: He does have that familiar whiz-bang mad gleam in his eye when he cuts loose, and that rakish way of clutching a cig between his thumb and first two fingers while hatching a scheme, but this is basically the training bra version of Cary Grant. According to a great post at The Sheila Variations, this was the film most responsible for all the films that came after, which of course is reason enough to praise its existence. However, as a film qua film, it was still terrible.
The year of Cary Grant is almost upon us! I'm sure we're all tired of waiting to kick off this important event that I dreamed up on a whim last night after a long tweet session with my friend Tucc. So I drafted a list of 26 films that will see me through 2016, including several that are new to me and one that I vowed years ago never to watch again, thanks to what's known around my house as "ugh, the Joan Fontaine Factor." Anything to save me from Father Goose. At the very least I figure this project will keep me off the streets and give me something to write about.
My carefully developed and purely scientific RATINGS SYSTEM will judge the merits of each film according to one or more of the following criteria:
- Overall film quality
- Chemistry w/costar
- Charming cad scale
- Costume fit & flair scale
- Fox scale
- Gray scale
- Screwball scale
- Romance scale
- Tearjerker scale
- Essential Cary Grant-ness
As I've seen most of these movies previously I have a good idea of where they'll rank across the spectrum, but no spoilers here. Some of them are perfect gems and a few are real stinkers, and if we're lucky I'll get through them all in this order:
- Sylvia Scarlett - 1935
- Topper - 1937
- The Awful Truth - 1937
- Bringing Up Baby - 1938
- Holiday - 1938
- Gunga Din - 1939
- Only Angels Have Wings - 1939
- His Girl Friday - 1940
- My Favorite Wife - 1940
- The Philadelphia Story - 1940
- Penny Serenade - 1941
- Suspicion (yucko) - 1941
- Mr. Lucky - 1943
- Arsenic and Old Lace - 1944
- None But the Lonely Heart - 1944
- Notorious - 1946
- The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer - 1947
- The Bishop's Wife - 1947
- Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House - 1948
- I Was a Male War Bride - 1949
- To Catch a Thief - 1955
- An Affair to Remember - 1957
- Indiscreet - 1958
- North by Northwest - 1959
- That Touch of Mink - 1962
- Charade - 1963
1. Happy lobster-tomato day
2. Antipodal: The Lion in Winter by James Goldman:
ELEANOR: I’m so relieved. I didn’t want to lose you.
HENRY: Out of curiosity, as intellectual to intellectual, how in the name of bleeding Jesus can you lose me? Do we ever see each other, am I ever near you, ever with you, am I ever anywhere but somewhere else? Do I write, do we send messages, do dinghies bearing gifts float up the Thames to you, are you remembered?
ELEANOR: You are.
HENRY: You’re no part of me, we do not touch at any point. How can you lose me?
ELEANOR: Can’t you feel the chains?
4. From Roger Angell, age 93, in this week's New Yorker:
Getting old is the second biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OKCupid in such numbers—but not just for this, surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson's words: "Rowing in Eden—/Ah—the sea!") isn't reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated as a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor—you've had your turn—is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.
5. Let's hear it for the Manilow. Oh, what's that? A tear in your eye? You're welcome.
6. I lied before. I had this sixth lovely thing tucked away in my back pocket this whole entire time. Observe how the uniformed gent standing on the left, bisected though he may be, serves both to ground the frame and to place the beautiful man for certain right here on this earth, right here for an instant, just before he catches flight and bolts for the heavens.