The Awful Truth
|The Awful Truth|
|Directed by||Leo McCarey|
|Produced by||Leo McCarey|
|Screenplay by||Viña Delmar|
Sidney Buchman (uncredited)
|Based on||1923 play The Awful Truth|
by Arthur Richman
|Music by||Ben Oakland|
Milton Drake (lyrics)
|Edited by||Al Clark|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Budget||$600,000 ($10,500,000 in 2018 dollars)|
|Box office||over $3 million ($52,300,000 in 2018 dollars)|
The Awful Truth is a 1937 American screwball comedy directed by Leo McCarey and starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. Based on the 1923 play by Arthur Richman, the film tells how a distrustful rich couple begins divorce proceedings, only to interfere in one another's romances; this was McCarey's first film for Columbia Pictures, and the dialogue and comic bits were largely improvised by the director and actors. The film was Irene Dunne's second hit comedy. Although Grant tried to leave the production due to McCarey's directorial style, The Awful Truth marked the emergence of Cary Grant as an A-list star and proponent of on-the-set improvisation. Dunne's costumes by Robert Kalloch are considered some of the most elegant of the 1930s.
The film was a box office hit; the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. McCarey won for Best Director, and editor Al Clark for Best Film Editing. The Awful Truth was selected in 1996 for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Cast
- 3 Pre-production
- 4 Principal photography
- 5 Box office and reception
- 6 Awards and honors
- 7 Subsequent versions
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) spends a week at his sports club in New York City, but tells his wife he was on vacation in Florida, he returns home to find that his wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne), spent the night in the company of her handsome music teacher, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D'Arcy). Lucy claims his car broke down unexpectedly. Lucy discovers that Jerry did not actually go to Florida, their mutual suspicion results in divorce proceedings, with Lucy winning custody of their dog. The judge orders the divorce finalized in 90 days.
Lucy moves into an apartment with her Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham), her neighbor is amiable but rustic Oklahoma oilman Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), whose mother (Esther Dale) does not approve of Lucy. Jerry subtly ridicules Dan in front of Lucy, which causes Lucy to tie herself more closely to Dan. Jerry begins dating sweet-natured but simple singer Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), unaware that she performs embarrassing, sexually suggestive songs at a local nightclub.
Convinced that Lucy is still having an affair with Armand Duvalle, Jerry bursts into Duvalle's apartment only to discover that Lucy is a legitimate vocal student of Duvalle and is giving her first recital. Realizing he may still love Lucy, Jerry undermines Lucy's character with Mrs. Leeson even as Dan and Lucy agree to marry; when Jerry attempts to reconcile with Lucy afterward, he discovers Duvalle hiding in Lucy's apartment and they have a fistfight while Dan and his mother apologize for assuming the worst about Lucy. When Jerry chases Armand out the door, Dan breaks off his engagement to Lucy and he and his mother return to Oklahoma.
Some weeks pass, and Jerry begins dating heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). Realizing she still loves Jerry, Lucy crashes a party at the Vance mansion the night the divorce decree becomes final. Pretending to be Jerry's sister, she acts like a slatternly showgirl, recreating Dixie's risqué musical number from earlier in the film, she also undermines Jerry's character, implying that "their" father was working class rather than wealthy. The snobbish Vances are appalled.
Jerry attempts to explain away Lucy's behavior as drunkenness, and says he will drive Lucy home. Lucy repeatedly sabotages the car on the ride to delay their parting. Pulled over by motorcycle police officers, who believe Jerry is drunk, Lucy manages to wreck the car; the police give the couple a lift to Aunt Patsy's nearby cabin. Although sleeping in different (but adjoining) bedrooms, Jerry and Lucy slowly overcome their pride and a series of comic mishaps in order to admit "the awful truth" that they still love one another, they reconcile at midnight, just as their divorce is finalized.
The cast includes:
- Irene Dunne as Lucy Warriner
- Cary Grant as Jerry Warriner
- Ralph Bellamy as Dan Leeson
- Alexander D'Arcy as Armand Duvalle
- Cecil Cunningham as Aunt Patsy
- Esther Dale as Mrs. Leeson
- Joyce Compton as Dixie Belle Lee
- Molly Lamont as Barbara Vance
- Skippy as Mr. Smith, the dog (uncredited)
The Awful Truth is based on a 1923 stage play of the same name by playwright Arthur Richman. In the play, Norman Satterly divorces his wife, Lucy Warriner Satterly, after they accuse one another of infidelity. Lucy is about to remarry, but needs to clear her name before her fiancée will agree to go forward with the marriage; as she tries to salvage her reputation, she falls in love again with her ex-husband and they remarry.
There were two previous film versions, a 1925 silent version from Producers Distributing Corporation starring Warner Baxter and Agnes Ayres and a 1929 sound version from Pathé Exchange starring Ina Claire and Henry Daniell. Producer D.A. Doran had purchased the rights to the play for Pathé; when Pathé closed, he joined Columbia Pictures. Columbia subsequently purchased all of Pathé's scripts and screenplay rights for $35,000 ($600,000 in 2018 dollars). Doran chose to remake the film in 1937, just as Columbia head Harry Cohn was hiring director Leo McCarey to direct comedies for the Poverty Row studio.[a]
Cohn offered the film to director Tay Garnett. Garnett read Taylor's script, and felt it was "about as funny as the seven-year-itch in an iron lung." He turned it down. According to Garnett, McCarey accepted the project simply because he needed work. "Sure, the script was terrible, but I've seen worse. I worked it over for a few weeks, changed this and that. I finally decided I could make something of it."
McCarey did not like the narrative structure of the play, the previous film versions, or the unproduced Pathé script. Cohn had already assigned Everett Riskin to produce the film, and screenwriter Dwight Taylor had a draft script. Taylor changed Norman Satterly to Jerry Warriner, got rid of much of the play's moralistic tone, and added a good deal of screwball comedy. Jerry is violence-prone (he punches Lucy in the eye), and the couple fight over a necklace (not a dog). Much of the action in Taylor's script is set at Jerry's club; the mishaps in the script cause Jerry to crack up emotionally. When the couple visit their old home (which is being sold at auction), his love for his wife is rekindled.
McCarey didn't like Taylor's script, he believed, however, that The Awful Truth would do well at the box office. With the Great Depression in its seventh year, he felt audiences would enjoy seeing a picture about rich people having troubles. During face-to-face negotiations with Cohn, McCarey demanded $100,000 ($3,300,000 in 2018 dollars) to direct. Cohn balked. McCarey wandered over to a piano and began to play show-tunes. Cohn, an avid fan of musicals, decided that anyone who liked that kind of music had to be talented—and he agreed to pay McCarey's fee, he also agreed not to interfere in the production.
McCarey worked with "Viña Delmar", the writing name for screenwriters Viña Delmar and her husband, Eugene; the couple had written racy novels as well as the source material and screenplay for McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow. The Delmars refused to work anywhere but their home, visit the studio or the set, or to meet any of the actors when working on a script. In a letter to author Elizabeth Kendall, Viña Delmar said that McCarey worked with them on the script at their home, suggesting scenes. McCarey asked the Delmars to drop the major plot points of the play—which focused on Dan Leeson's attempt to purchase mineral rights, a fire in Lucy Warriner's apartment building, and Lucy's midnight meeting with another man at a luxurious mountain resort—and focus on the pride which Jerry and Lucy feel and which keeps them from reconciling.
According to the Delmars, they completed a script[b] which included musical numbers, making it resemble musical theatre more than screwball comedy, it also largely retained the play's narrative structure, with four acts: the break-up at the Warriner house, events at Jerry Warriner's sports club, arguments and misunderstandings at Lucy Warriner's apartment, and a finale at Dan Leeson's apartment. The sets were simple, and few actors were needed.
According to other accounts, Mary C. McCall Jr., Dwight Taylor (again), and Dorothy Parker all worked on the script as well.[c] None of their work was used by McCarey, and Taylor even asked that his name be taken off the script. Ralph Bellamy says that McCarey himself then wrote a script, completely reworking Delmar's effort. Harry Cohn was not happy with McCarey's decision to abandon Delmar's work, but McCarey convinced the studio boss that he could rework it. Film historians Iwan W. Morgan and Philip Davies say that McCarey retained only a single aspect of Delmar's work: The alleged infidelity of both man and wife.[d]
Irene Dunne had been an independent actress since her arrival in Hollywood, she appeared in Theodora Goes Wild for Columbia in 1936, and despite her misgivings about doing comedy her performance had garnered her an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. Dunne wanted to undertake a new project quickly after negative reaction to her performing in blackface in 1936's Show Boat,[e] her agent, Charles K. Feldman, helped develop The Awful Truth for Dunne, and the film was rushed into production to accommodate her. McCarey wanted her for The Awful Truth because he thought the "incongruity" of a "genteel" actress like Dunne in screwball comedy was funny, and she was asked to appear in it even though Delmar was still working on a script. Dunne was attached to the picture in mid-February 1937, although commitments to other stage and film projects meant production could not begin for several months. Dunne was paid $75,000 ($1,300,000 in 2018 dollars) for her work.[f] Dunne later said her decision to work on the film was "just an accident".
Cary Grant was cast three days after Dunne. Grant had recently become an independent actor without long-standing contractual obligations to any studio. By late 1936, he was negotiating a contract with Columbia, he ran into McCarey on the street, and told McCarey he was free. In February 1937, he signed a non-exclusive contract with Columbia Pictures in which he agreed to make four films over two years, provided each film was a prestige picture, he was paid $50,000 ($900,000 in 2018 dollars) to appear in The Awful Truth.[g] Grant was eager to work with McCarey, McCarey wanted Grant, and Cohn assigned Grant to the picture.
For Ralph Bellamy, a contract player with Columbia, the film was just another assignment. Delmar's draft script, sent to Bellamy by his agent, originally described Dan Lesson as a conservative, prudish Englishman, a role written with Roland Young in mind. Per his agent's request, Bellamy ignored the script; some time later, Bellamy got a call from his good friend, the writer Mary McCall, who asked him to work with her on redeveloping the role. McCall had been instructed to change the Leeson character into someone from the American West, they spent an afternoon together, and recrafting the character as well as writing a scene for his entrance in the film.[h] After more time passed, Bellamy ran into writer Dwight Taylor at a cocktail party and learned that Taylor was rewriting his part. After a few weeks more, Dorothy Parker called Bellamy to tell him she was now working on the script and changing his role once more; the second week of June 1937, Bellamy's agent told him he'd been cast in The Awful Truth and was to report to the studio the next Monday. His casting was announced on June 23.
For the animal role of Mr. Smith, two dogs were cast but did not work out. Skippy, better known to the public as "Asta" in the Thin Man film series, was cast at the end of June. Skippy proved difficult to work with. For a critical scene in which Mr. Smith is to leap into Jerry Warriner's arms, a white rubber mouse (one of the dog's favorite toys) was placed in Cary Grant's breast pocket, but whenever Grant held his arms open, Skippy would dodge him at the last moment. It took several days to get the shot; the human cast of The Awful Truth was also forced to take several unscheduled days of vacation in late July 1937 because Skippy was booked on another film.
The Awful Truth was budgeted at $600,000 ($10,500,000 in 2018 dollars).[i] Pre-production on the film neared completion at the beginning of May 1937. Stephen Goosson was the supervising art director (his role today would be called production designer), and Lionel Banks the unit art director. Goosson was a 20-year veteran art director for Columbia Pictures, and The Awful Truth is considered among his most important films of the 1930s.[j] Lionel Banks was primarily responsible for the production design of the film, he specialized in films set in the present day, and created restrained, well-crafted Art Deco sets for the picture. The Awful Truth is considered one of his more elegant designs.[k]
Columbia Pictures' chief costume and fashion designer, Robert Kalloch, created Dunne's wardrobe, his work was personally approved by studio head Harry Cohn. The clothes were the most elegant and expensive yet worn by her on film, and costume design historian Jay Jorgensen has described them as "magnificent". In 2012, Vanity Fair ranked The Awful Truth as one of the 25 most fashionable films ever made in Hollywood.
For Lucy Warriner's first appearance in the film, Kalloch created an evening gown that was form-fitting, sleeveless, and of simple design like a sport dress; the gown, its revers, peplum, and shoulder cape were covered in silver bugle beads. The décolletage was deep, and the shoulder cape was fastened at the throat with diamond and sapphire clip. Over the gown, Dunne wore a Kalloch-designed knee-length white fox coat; the skins were mounted vertically on white chiffon, and the coat lined in black velvet. The collar was shirred, and the coat had two slit pockets in the front center; the coat cost $5,000 ($100,000 in 2018 dollars), and was the most expensive wardrobe item in the film.[l]
For the divorce court sequence, Kalloch designed a narrow daytime dress made of black broadcloth (a fabric which had largely fallen out of use in Hollywood at the time) with white flower appliqués. A broad-shouldered, square jacket made of white lambskin (slightly longer in back than in front) was worn over the dress; the jacket featured a black and white broadcloth flower corsage. Dunne also wore a black velvet hat trimmed with aigrettes, which cost $375 ($6,536 in 2018 dollars) to manufacture (the costliest non-dress/non-jacket item in the wardrobe).
For the following scene at Lucy's apartment (where she meets with Dan Leeson for the first time), Kalloch designed a black crystal-beaded evening dress with large emerald pin instead of corsage; the dress featured a form-fitting tailored bodice with wide revers over the front shoulders. The skirt of the dress was slender and straight and had a short train. Twenty-nine pounds (13 kg) of beads were needed to make the dress. At $1,000 ($17,428 in 2018 dollars), it was the third most expensive wardrobe item. At the end of the scene, as Lucy, Dan, and Aunt Patsy head out for a night on the town, Lucy wears a Kalloch-created white fox waist-length coat; the fox was mounted on chiffon and arranged so that the foxtails created a scalloped effect to the three-quarter length sleeves and bottom of the coat. Dunne wore a diamond bracelet, and two matching diamond clips were attached to her Kalloch evening bag.
The press also paid attention to Dunne's dress in the scenes where she and Dan sing Home on the Range and where Jerry hides behind the door in Lucy's apartment. For these, Kalloch designed a simple suit of black and white: A straight, slender skirt of black broadcloth with a short-sleeved white pullover blouse with a rolled collar; the dress featured "saddle" (or "tab") pockets—large, pocket-shaped pouches suspended from the waistline.[m] For Lucy's recital ensemble, Kalloch created a Princesse-style[n] hostess[o] coat made of linen and white satin[p] decorated with a large broadcloth corsage of consisting of a red poppy and a cornflower and four large buttons ("bachelor buttons") set in two rows over the stomach; the simple slim black dress worn beneath the jacket was made of black broadcloth, and Kalloch designed a black velvet hat trimmed with aigrettes and black suede shoes, gloves, and handbag to complete the ensemble.
Widely praised was Kalloch's highly original Persian-style "cocktail pajamas", worn by Dunne in the scene when Jerry tries to hide in Lucy's apartment when Dan comes to visit; the tunic-like top, trousers, and ascot were cut from Navy blue satin, and a short train was attached to the calf of each leg. Worn over the pajamas was a jacket made of Navy blue net. An appliqué of white silk soutache was applied to the jacket in a geometric design.[q]
Members of the media were impressed by a range of other women's wardrobe items designed by Kalloch for the film, none of which actually appeared; these included another set of cocktail pajamas with blush pink satin slip trousers.[r] Over the pajamas was worn a full length[s] Princesse hostess robe of either pink and blue or powder blue satin with wide, stitched lapels and sable-trimmed sleeves. "Hostess slippers"[t] with blue netting over the instep and heels and trimmings made of silver kidskin were designed to be worn with this robe. Dunne's favorite costume also did not appear; this was a straight, highly tailored day dress made of soft brown mink. It was intended to be worn with a straight, highly tailored, knee-length beige broadcloth coat trimmed in mink bands 18 inches (460 mm) wide. Another press favorite which did not actually appear was a suit of gray, finely ribbed wool. Semi-tailored, the jacket had broad, square shoulders and a wide collar made of brown fox; the skirt was extremely slender, with a pleat in the center front. Beneath the jacket was a simple white linen blouse. Kalloch designed a fox muff, black and grey velvet hat, and other black accessories to go with the suit.
Costume mishaps on the set were not uncommon. Dunne began wearing shin guards under her Navy blue Persian cocktail pajamas after Skippy knocked her over several times; when shooting first began on Joyce Compton's My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind musical number, valves beneath the floor were to open and send blasts of air upward to make her dress fly around. On the first take, either the air pressure was too great or the seams on Compton's dress were inadequate: The dress ripped apart, sending the gown into the air and leaving Compton clad only in lingerie. In another mishap, Dunne took a few hours off from the production to pose on the set for the press in her silver bugle bead evening gown. Robert Kalloch was on hand to help arrange the dress for presentation, and he pinned the dress to the floor so it would drape correctly. Unfortunately, both Kalloch and his assistant were called away, leaving Dunne fastened to the stage.
Principal photography began on June 21, 1937, without a completed script;[u] this so concerned Ralph Bellamy that, the Friday before filming started, he contacted Harry Cohn to ask where the script was. Cohn declined to say anything about the film, and allowed Bellamy to talk to Leo McCarey. Bellamy went to McCarey's home to discuss the issue with him. McCarey was charming and witty, but evaded all of Bellamy's questions and concerns.
Initial disruptiveness of McCarey's working style
The first four or five days on the set were deeply upsetting to Dunne, Grant, and Bellamy due to the lack of a script and McCarey's working methods. McCarey had the cast sit around on the set the first few days and largely swap stories; the lack of rehearsal activity and script[v] caused Dunne such emotional distress that she spontaneously burst into tears several times each day. Grant was so nervous that at times he became physically ill; when McCarey bowed to the cast's concerns and blocked a scene for Dunne and Grant, Grant refused to perform it.
Cary Grant in particular was unnerved by McCarey's behavior and lack of a script, he had spent most of his career at Paramount Studios, which had a factory-like approach to motion picture production: Actors were expected to learn their lines and be ready every morning, and shooting schedules were strictly enforced. McCarey's improvisational style was deeply unsettling to Grant, and at the end of the first week Grant sent Cohn an eight-page memorandum titled "What's Wrong With This Picture". Grant asked Cohn to let him out of the film, offering to do one or more pictures for free and even saying he'd reimburse Cohn $5,000 if he were released.[w] McCarey was so angry at Grant that he stopped speaking to him and told Cohn he'd kick in another $5,000 to get Grant off the film. Cohn ignored both the memo and the offers. Grant also sought to switch roles Bellamy and asked Cohn to pressure McCarey into sticking to a more conventional style of filmmaking. Again, Cohn said no to Grant's requests. McCarey later said that Grant "had no sound judgment" when it came to determining what made for good comedy, and McCarey seemed to harbor a grudge against Grant for decades for trying to get out of the picture.
Cast support for improvisation
McCarey believed that improvisation was the key to great comedy. "[A] lot of times we'd go into a scene [on The Awful Truth] with nothing at all", he said. His working method was to ask his cast to improvise the scene, creating their own dialogue and blocking their own action before allowing cameras to roll. If a problem arose with a scene, McCarey would sit at a piano on the set and pick out tunes and sing until a solution came to him. McCarey supported his actors' comedy and other choices, which quickly alleviated the tension which had built up on the set. For example, Ralph Bellamy was told to bring a selection of clothing from his own extensive, personal wardrobe, he did so, but was worried that he had not been given costuming. McCarey told him that the clothes he'd brought from home fit the part perfectly, which made Bellamy feel comfortable in his acting and comedy choices. McCarey was also extremely patient with his cast, understanding of their concerns, and sympathetic to their needs and problems, he also used his own wit to keep his cast in good humor. Irene Dunne later recalled that the entire cast loved working on the picture because every day was full of laughter. Many actors didn't want each day's work to end, because they were having such a good time.
Cary Grant began trusting the director once he realized that McCarey recognized Grant's strengths and welcomed Grant's ideas about blocking, dialogue, and comic bits. McCarey also had the ability to get his performers to mimic his own unique mannerisms. (It was something Irene Dunne thoroughly admired.) McCarey taught Grant a repertoire of comic vocalizations (like grunts) and movements and asked him to work with them. In turn, Grant imitated much of McCarey's own mannerisms and personality, becoming a "clone" of McCarey. Grant biographer Graham McCann says it would be an "overstatement" to say that McCarey gave Grant an on-screen personality. Grant had been working on this acting persona for some time; McCarey merely made Grant think more precisely about what he was trying to accomplish on camera.[x] Additionally, McCarey worked to give Grant comic dialogue and physical comedy (like pratfalls) as well as sophisticated dialogue and urbane moments, efforts which Grant also deeply appreciated. Over time, Grant came to feel liberated rather than inhibited by the lack of a script, and seized the chance to make sure that the film's humor reflected his own. According to Ralph Bellamy, Grant enjoyed knowing that the audience was laughing at him, and worked to encourage it. Grant also used his early feelings of frustration to build his character's emotional and sexual frustration in the film.[y]
Most of The Awful Truth was improvised on the set. McCarey had two guides for directing the film; the first was that he believed the film was the "story of my life", because McCarey based many scenes and comic moments on misunderstandings he had had with his own wife (although they never accused one another of infidelity). The second guide was McCarey's own lengthy experience directing comedy. Jerry Warriner's need to find a lie to cover for his "boys' night out away from the wives" is a typical scenario McCarey used in many feature motion pictures and short films, it was also common in many of the Laurel and Hardy shorts which McCarey directed for only the man's alibi to break down. Subsequently, in The Awful Truth, it is Jerry's alibi that crumbles; the bowler hat sequence in Lucy's apartment was based on a standard bit McCarey had frequently used in Laurel and Hardy films (as well as in the Marx Brothers' 1933 comedy hit Duck Soup, which McCarey had also directed). Dunne's increasingly outrageous mishaps with the car in the scene after Jerry and Lucy leave the Vance mansion is similar to Harpo Marx's misadventures with a photograph player in Duck Soup and incorporates the straight man (Grant for Oliver Hardy) from Laurel and Hardy bits.
McCarey also relied on his ability to craft a narrative from a series of unrelated sketches,[z] and he often staged portions of his films like musicals, inserting a song to tie elements together.
Improvising the film
Irene Dunne had never met Cary Grant before, but she later recalled that they "just worked from the first moment" and called Grant a very generous actor. Cary Grant, in turn, said "we just clicked". Dunne so trusted his comedy judgment that she would often turn to him after a take and ask in a whisper, "Funny?"
Nearly every day during principal photography, Leo McCarey would arrive in the morning with ideas for the film written down on scraps of paper.[aa] On days when he had nothing in mind, McCarey would arrive on the set and play the piano until inspiration struck, he would then have the script girl write down his ideas or dialogue, and give the actors their instructions.[ab] Although he asked the cast to rehearse scenes, McCarey also encouraged his actors to improvise and build up the scene on their own. At times, McCarey himself acted out bits with the performers.[ac] McCarey continued to meet with screenwriter Viña Delmar every evening, sitting with her in a parked car on Hollywood Boulevard and improvising scenes for her to write down. McCarey also relied for dialogue on writer Sidney Buchman, who had joined Columbia in 1934 and who had written Theodora Goes Wild for Irene Dunne; some of the best lines and comic moments in the film remained improvised, however. For example, McCarey himself came up with the idea of arguing over a dog rather than property. Another example occurs when Cary Grant appears at Lucy's apartment while she is meeting for the first time with Dan Leeson; the writers did not have a line of dialogue for Grant, who ad-libbed the line, "The judge says this is my day to see the dog." Grant and Dunne also came up with the idea for Jerry to tickle Lucy with a pencil while Dan Leeson is at Lucy's door. Grant quickly became an accomplished improvisational actor during the shoot, he ad-libbed with such speed and composure that his co-stars often "corpsed" (just stood agape).
The nightclub scene was apparently also somewhat improvised on the set. In the Delmar script, Jerry's date is named Toots Biswanger and the scene is meant to parody the novel Gone with the Wind (at that time not yet a motion picture), she has a Southern American English accent, and Toots believes her song is a tribute to the novel. Jerry has a line in which he slyly criticizes Lucy's date by telling Dan "It's a book." As Toots sings the song's critical line ("my dreams are gone with the wind"), the wind machine on the stage was to have blown off her hat, then her muff, then her cape. On the set, the singer's name is changed to Dixie Belle, much of the dialogue is improvised, and the wind machine joke changed to a more restrained blowing of the dress.
According to Dunne, the action and dialogue for the scene in the Vance mansion was all written on the set. Dunne choreographed the dance and at least one line of dialogue, while the bit with the long handkerchief was a classic comic routine from silent films.
Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn was not happy with McCarey's directorial methods, either. On the first day of shooting, he walked onto the soundstage to see Bellamy singing Home on the Range off-key while Dunne tried to pick out the tune on a piano, he shook his head in disbelief and left. Later, Cohn became angry when he learned McCarey was apparently dawdling on the set by playing the piano and telling stories, he angrily confronted McCarey in front of the cast and crew, shouting, "I hired you to make a great comedy so I could show up Frank Capra. The only one who's going to laugh at this picture is Capra!" When Cohn caught McCarey playing the piano another time, McCarey dismissed his concerns by claiming to be writing a song for the film. Cohn also came on the set the day Harold Lloyd was visiting. Cohn was so incensed that McCarey seemed to be telling jokes that he ordered the set cleared. Lloyd departed, and so did McCarey. Cohn finally reached McCarey at home, and in a profanity-laced conversation demanded that McCarey return to work. McCarey demanded in turn that Cohn apologize personally to everyone on the set, and send his apology to Lloyd. Cohn, unwilling to abandon the picture, perfunctorily apologized. Nevertheless, Cohn did not rein in the director. Cohn decided instead to write the entire picture off as a loss, since he was obligated to pay Dunne's salary whether the film was made or not and he could not fire McCarey since only McCarey knew where the film was headed.
Improvisation proved to be a problem for actor Alexander D'Arcy, who played the suave musician Armand Duvalle. Initially, D'Arcy portrayed Duvalle as French. Columbia Pictures' in-house censors vetoed his performance, saying it would offend overseas audiences. D'Arcy tried an Austrian, Italian, Spanish, and even vaguely South American persona; each time, the censors disapproved of his work. Finally, after much experimentation, the actor's makeup was changed to fair from swarthy, he was told not to gesticulate too much, and he created a nondescript, vaguely European accent (which was nicknamed "Spenchard") for his role; the accent proved difficult to maintain. During long takes, D'Arcy would slip into his native French-inflected voice, forcing these scenes to be reshoot multiple times.
Improvisation could sometimes be a risky choice for the production in other ways as well. Delmar's script called for the film to be set in Connecticut; the critical plot element had the divorce court judge issue a 90-day interlocutory decree, and it is during this period in which most of the action in the film occurs. As filming commenced, it became clear that no one knew if Connecticut permitted interlocutory decrees, it turned out that the state did not, and Columbia Pictures' in-house lawyers could not determine which state did. By coincidence, David T. Wilentz, the New Jersey Attorney General, was visiting Los Angeles. McCarey called him on the telephone, and Wilentz confirmed that New Jersey divorce courts used them; the setting of the film was then changed to New Jersey. Improvisation also led to minor visual inconsistencies in the film, such as when Jerry Warriner appears to both stand and sit during the divorce proceedings.
Songs and choreography
During pre-production, McCarey knew that he needed two songs for important scenes in the picture. Composer Ben Oakland and lyricist Milton Drake wrote two numbers for the film, I Don't Like Music and My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind. Both were finished by the time principal photography began. Compton's original delivery of My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind and Dunne's reprise of it were filmed by July 25.
One critical scene in The Awful Truth occurs in a nightclub, during which both Dunne and Grant dance. In a second scene, Dunne's character dances in front of Jerry, his fiancée, and her family. Usually, the production would hire a choreographer for these scenes, but McCarey declined to do so. Instead, he asked an African American youth working on the Columbia lot to teach Dunne and Grant how to dance, their inept efforts to imitate him made their on-screen dances funnier. Ralph Bellamy was required to do the fictional "Balboa Stomp" in the nightclub scene while Irene Dunne largely stands by, feebly trying to imitate him; the dance proved so physically intimidating that Bellamy lost 15 pounds (6.8 kg) and his muscles and joints were sore for weeks afterward. Irene Dunne choreographed the burlesque dance which her character performs at the Vance mansion to embarrass Jerry. In rehearsal, Leo McCarey asked her to insert a "stripper bump"[ad] into her routine. Dunne replied, "Never could do that." McCarey laughed so hard at her response that he asked her to include it in the performance.
One of the film's most famous comedy moments is when Lucy Warriner accompanies an off-key Dan Leeson on the piano while he sings Home on the Range; this was filmed on June 21, the first day of filming. McCarey wanted the song in the film, but knew neither performer would agree if requested. Instead, McCarey tricked them into it by casually asking Dunne if she could play the piano, she said she could, a little. McCarey then asked Bellamy if he could sing; the actor said he knew the words to the song, but could not sing. McCarey asked them to do the song anyway, telling Bellamy to "belt it out" in an Oklahoman accent.[ae] McCarey had their performance filmed, and it turned out so well that he ordered the footage printed. Dunne was furious when she realized McCarey had intended to use the footage in the film all along.
Cinematography and editing
Cinematographer Joseph Walker used mainly long takes when shooting The Awful Truth. With McCarey providing only minimal direction, this helped to make scenes feel spontaneous and energetic. Generally, a scene would only be shot once unless there was a mistake, and shooting days were kept short (often ending at 3 PM).[af] One particular scene, however, took nearly a full day to film. During the film's finale, shot about August 10, Delmar's script called for a cat to block the door connecting Jerry and Lucy's bedrooms, impeding Jerry's attempt at a marital reconciliation. An animal wrangler brought five cats in the morning, but none would stand still. Frustrated, McCarey called another animal wrangler, who soon arrived with three more cats. None would stay still. Three more animal wranglers were called during the day, but none of the cats would perform as required.[ag] Finally, McCarey was forced to issue an open call to the public for anyone with a cat who would perform the actions required; when a cat was found that would stay still, the animal refused to move when Cary Grant attempted to open the door.
The Awful Truth was shot primarily on a soundstage at Columbia Pictures' Gower Street studios. Principal photography ended on August 17, 1937, the 37th day of shooting.[ah] At end of August, location shooting occurred at Columbia Ranch, the studio's 40-acre (16 ha) lot located at the corner of Hollywood Way and Oak Street in Burbank, California.
Reshoots on the film occurred during the first week of October.
McCarey did not permit Joseph Walker to shoot much coverage, preferring to "edit in the camera"; this left editor Al Clark with few choices once the film began to be pieced together. One major cut made to the film was actor Claud Allister's performance as Lord Fabian in Vance drawing room scene, which was completely excised. Film historian James Harvey says that the comic timing of Walker's editing in the nightclub scene—cutting from Dixie Belle Lee's performance to Jerry, Lucy, and Dan at the table—is "exquisite...unmatched deadpan brilliance".
Previews and release
The Awful Truth was shot in just six weeks, a record for a film of this genre (according to Ralph Bellamy), it was finished ahead of schedule and $200,000 ($3,500,000 in 2018 dollars) under budget. The film contained several risqué moments which normally would have run afoul of the Motion Picture Production Code, including Jerry making double entendres about coal mines to an oblivious Dan, Dixe Belle Lee's exposed underwear, Lucy "goosing" pompous Mrs. Vance, and the final moment of the film when the cuckoo clock figures go into the same room together. Code administrator Joseph Breen permitted these gags because the picture and its cast were high-quality, which served to undercut the raciness of the moments. Screenwriter Norman Krasna considered it a major breakthrough that the film showed the characters actually divorced; this implied that Jerry and Lucy had had sex, which the Production Code disallowed.
The film was test screened, and the audience's reaction was good but not outstanding. Audiences were unused to seeing the three stars in a comedy, and were unsure whether they should laugh. McCarey realized the opening was too somber, and that viewers were not certain the picture was a comedy, he rewrote the opening scenes, adding one in which Lucy calls her attorney to discuss her impending divorce. A new bit in this scene helped establish the tone of the film more clearly. While on the phone, Lucy's lawyer tries to tell her that "Marriage is a beautiful thing"; each time, his wife (standing in the background of the shot) yells at him to remind him that dinner is ready. This happens three times; the attorney's response is harsher the second time. The third time, he shouts back "Shut your big mouth!" At a second preview, audiences roared with laughter.
The Awful Truth was released in theaters in the United States on October 21, 1937.
Box office and reception
Gross box office receipts for The Awful Truth were more than $3 million ($52,300,000 in 2018 dollars); the film made a profit of $500,000 ($8,700,000 in 2018 dollars) in a year when Columbia Pictures' studio-wide profit margin was just $1.3 million ($22,700,000 in 2018 dollars).
Although he was not nominated for an Academy Award, the film was a triumph for Cary Grant. Overnight he was transformed into an A-list leading man. "The Cary Grant Persona" was fully established by this film, and Grant not only became an able improviser but often demanded improvisation in his films thereafter. Ralph Bellamy, however, was typecast for years in "amiable dope" roles after The Awful Truth.
Awards and honors
The Awful Truth was nominated for six Oscars at the 10th Academy Awards: Best Picture (then called "Outstanding Production"), Best Director (McCarey), Best Actress (Dunne), Best Supporting Actor (Bellamy), Best Writing (Screenplay) (Delmar), and Best Editing (Al Clark). McCarey won for Best Director and editor Clark won for Best Editing.[ai]
The film has since been recognized twice by American Film Institute:
The Awful Truth was presented as a radio program on Lux Radio Theatre on September 11, 1939. Grant and Claudette Colbert starred in the adaptation. Dunne reprised her Lucy Warriner role in a 30-minute version of The Awful Truth on The Goodyear Program on CBS on February 6, 1944. Walter Pidgeon played the role of Jerry Warriner. Dunne and Grant appeared in a 60-minute version of The Awful Truth on Lux Radio Theatre on NBC on January 18, 1955.
- Although a number of sources claim McCarey was on loan from Paramount Pictures, the director had been fired from Paramount due to the poor box office performance of his film Make Way for Tomorrow. Cohn did not hire McCarey until after McCarey left Paramount.
- Columbia Pictures archives show it was finished on June 15, six days before shooting was to begin.
- Author Elizabeth Kendall says Parker worked on the script with her husband, Alan Campbell. Bellamy says that it was Harry Cohn who assigned the script to Parker and her husband. According to Ralph Bellamy, these scripts were worked on during the several months before shooting began, although the timeline is not clear.
- The play and the two previous film versions had focused only on the wife's infidelity.
- Film historian Wes Gehring claims Dunne wanted to do a comedy to restore her public appeal and prestige after the box office failure of High, Wide and Handsome. This seems unlikely, as that film did not premiere until July 21, 1937, and Dunne had signed on to The Awful Truth five months earlier.
- In 1935, Dunne signed a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures, guaranteeing her $65,000 for her first film, $75,000 for her second, and $85,000 for her third. She was to be paid whether the film she was assigned to was made or not, her total income for 1937 was $259,587 ($4,500,000 in 2018 dollars).
- Grant's contract paid the actor $50,000 for each of the first two movies, and $75,000 for each for the third and fourth films. The first two films were When You're in Love (released February 16, 1937) and The Awful Truth (released October 21, 1937); the second two films were Holiday (released June 15, 1938) and Only Angels Have Wings (released May 15, 1939). Grant's total income for 1937 was $144,291 ($2,500,000 in 2018 dollars).
- Leeson was to have climbed down a fire escape at a hotel and entered Lucy's room through a window.
- Columbia made three kinds of pictures in the 1930s and 1940s: "AA", which cost about $1 million each; "Nervous A", which cost about $500,000 to $750,000; and "B" or "programmers", budgeted at $250,000. "Nervous A" films had lower budgets than "AA" films, but were expected to perform about the same at the box office. Savings in any single category could be applied to the budgets of other films, which often meant that a "Nervous A" or "B" picture could cost more than its average budget. About 70 percent of Columbia's films in the 1930s and 1940s were "B" movies, but the "AA" and "Nervous A" films produced 60 percent of the studio's profit.
- The others are American Madness, You Can't Take It With You, It Happened One Night, and Lost Horizon.
- Banks had worked on a single film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1935 before joining Columbia Pictures in 1937. He would be nominated for an Academy Award for his art direction on Holiday in 1938.
- Kalloch also designed a sapphire blue version of this dress, but it did not appear in the film.
- Also designed for this scene was a knee-length black and white plaid swagger coat with tuxedo collar. The coat was trimmed in white wolf. Swagger coats are a loose-fitting, beltless sport coat with a flared bottom which became popular in the 1930s; the coat did not appear in the film.
- The Princesse style, which emerged in the mid 1860s, was a garment with torso and skirt cut from the fabric in a single piece. Shirring was used to indicate and accentuate the waist. Gores were used in the front to fit the garment tightly to the body, while the back featured two large pleats, each ornamented with gimps or tassels; the Princesse style could be imitated with a two-piece outfit, so long as trim was used to hide where the garments met.
- In this context, "hostess" means a light coat meant to be worn indoors.
- Another source claims the fabric is lamé.
- A skirt made of Navy blue sheer wool and several Navy blue accessories were also made for this scene, but did not appear in the film.
- Unlike pants which needed to be buttoned, belted, zipped up, or tied in some way, slip trousers had an elastic waistband which kept them in place.
- Generally speaking, "full length" meant any garment whose hem was no higher than the ankles.
- Like cocktail pajamas, "hostess" slippers were designed to be worn in the house, but were of higher quality materials and manufacture than regular slippers.
- Kendall says there was a completed script, but all other sources disagree. It may be that the completed script was not given to the cast.
- One source says Dunne had seen fragments of a script.
- Grant allegedly asked his friend, actor Joel McCrea, to take over the part.
- McCarey appeared to hold a grudge against Grant for the rest of his life. Peter Bogdanovich believes McCarey felt "Grant never gave him enough credit for basically handing him the characteristics he would play variations on throughout the rest of his career". Grant never seemed upset by McCarey's ill-will, apparently understanding why McCarey felt the way he did.
- Irene Dunne claims she helped "calm down" Grant's deep unease over the lack of a script.
- McCarey called this narrative the "ineluctability of incidents".
- According to Cohn biographer Bob Thomas, McCarey often wrote down dialogue and directions for the day while riding in a taxi from his home to the studio.
- Dunne told an interviewer that all the film's dialogue was written by McCarey on the set, while the crew and actors waited.
- According to sound supervisor Edward Bernds, improvisation almost always occurred during rehearsal. Lines might be improvised while photography occurred, but blocking never was; the microphone operator had to know where the boom went in order to capture the sound.
- This is a physical move where the performer swiftly pushes the hips forward suddenly, as if thrusting sexually. It is often performed with the hands behind the head or on the hips. In live theater, especially vaudeville, it might be accompanied by a rimshot or cymbal strike for comic effect.
- At this point, Bellamy did not know what part he was to play, or that Dan Leeson was to be from Oklahoma.
- In one case, McCarey shot a close-up of Dunne and Grant three times when he felt that their expressions did not communicate enough love for one another.
- Two of the cats escaped their handlers and sought refuge in the catwalks above the soundstage. Three got beneath the stage itself, and began yeowling.
- Cohn, visiting the set that day, was apoplectic to see McCarey serving the cast and crew drinks. His anger subsided when McCarey told him they'd just wrapped.
- Although remembered today for its set design, The Awful Truth was not nominated for its production design in 1937. Goosson was nominated and won for art direction for Lost Horizon, which was released on February 17, 1937.
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