Awful Truth, The (1937): Origins of Good Films (Screwball Comedy)

One of the best screwball comedies ever made, The Awful Truth belongs to the sub-genre known as “the comedy of remarriage,” in which the members of a recently divorced couple begin dating new mates, only to get back together at the end.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

The tale unfolds as a series of obstacles, which prevent–for a while–the couple from reaching a happy reunion.

Literary Source: Versions and Remakes

the_awful_truth_dunne_grant_3The script, based on a 1921 Broadway comedy, was filmed as a silent in 1925, and then as a talkie in 1929 with Ina Claire, and again in 1937.


The screwball comedy was poorly remade in 1953, under the title Let’s Do It Again.

The comedy scored a nomination for writer Vina Delmar (the husband-and-wife team that worked together under the wife’s name).  Dwight Taylor did the first draft with work by Mary McCall Jr. and additional work by Sidney Buchman, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell.

But it’s McCarey, who contributed to the sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek dialogue and also encouraged the leads to improvise.

End result is a chestnut for the ages–for some critics, it is the epitome of American screwball comedy.

The plot unfolds as a series of comic-absurdist machinations of a soon-to-be-divorced couple, who initiallys go to great lengths to try to ruin each other’s romantic escapades.

Jerry Warriner (Grant) returns home from a trip to find his wife, Lucy (Dunne), is not at home. When she returns in the company of her music teacher, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy), he learns that she spent the night with him, after his car had broken down. When she discovers that Jerry did not go to Florida as he had claimed. Mutual suspicions result in divorce.

As a punishment, Lucy moves into an apartment with Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham) and becomes engaged to her neighbor, Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy) from Oklahoma. However, Leeson’s mother (Esther Dale) does not approve of her.

Lucy realizes that she still loves Jerry and decides to break off the engagement. However, before she informs Dan, Armand shows up at her apartment to discuss Jerry’s earlier disastrous interruption of Lucy’s singing recital. When Jerry knocks on the door, Armand decides it would be prudent to hide in the bedroom. Jerry wants to reconcile, to Lucy’s delight, but Dan and his mother show up.  To avoid complications, Jerry slips into Lucy’s bedroom, too. A fight erupts when he finds Armand already there, and Jerry chases him out in front of the Leesons.

the_awful_truth_dunne_grant_5Meanwhile, Jerry is seen around town with heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). To break up this relationship, Lucy crashes a party at the Vance mansion, pretending to be Jerry’s sister. She acts like a showgirl (recreating a musical number she had seen performed by one of Jerry’s girlfriends). She claims that their “father” had been a gardener at Princeton University, not a student athlete.  Motorcycle policemen stop Jerry, and Lucy, plotting to spend more time with him, sabotages the car. The couple get a lift to her aunt’s cabin from the policemen, where both admit to having made a fool of themselves.

Their main courtroom battle centers on their pet dog, Mr. Smith (better known as Asta of the “Thin Man” film series). When Grant begins to fall for the socialite Barbara Vance (played by Molly Lamont), Dunne invades a party at Barbara’s house, pretending to be drunk and carrying on wildlyuntil Grant consents to take her home.

the_awful_truth_dunne_grant_4The climax occurs in the couple’s mountain retreat, where they literally play cat and mouse games. Oscar-winner Leo McCarey’s mise-en-scene is spectacular: Just watch the details in a sequence in which Grant tries to make a door that separates his room from Dunne’s open–without visible assistance and without much noise. The sequence benefits immensely from the sharp editing of Al Clark, who was nominated for an Oscar.

Irene Dunne, scoring a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination, has a way with a quip, as the critic Pauline Kael noted, “Dunne smiles brightly before wringing it dry, really dry.”

Grant was not Oscar-nominated, but Bellamy was, in the supporting category.

Bellamy plays the third wheel, Daniel Leeson, a wealthy oil heir from Oklahoma, a similar role he would play in Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday,” in 1940.  The cast also includes Esther Dale, Cecil Cunningham, Alex D’Arcy, and Joyce Compton, as the nightclub performer whom Dunne Parodies


Cary Grant Screen Persona









The Awful Truth marked the first showing of Grant’s light comedy persona, which he used in most of his subsequent films, catapulting his career to worldwide fame.

McCarey is credited for creating this idiosyncratic screen image.  Ironically, Grant fought hard to get out of the film during its shooting, since McCarey seemed to be improvising as he went along. At one point, Grant even wanted to switch roles with co-star Ralph Bellamy.

This, however, didn’t prevent other McCarey-Grant collaborations—My Favorite Wife (1940), Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), and An Affair to Remember (1957).

The film is what the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell calls “comedies of remarriage,” where couples who have once been married, or are on the verge of divorce, etc., rediscover that they are in love with each other, and recommit to the idea of marriage.

Classic examples of this subgenre include The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday, both released in 1940, starring Grant.

Critical Status:









In 1996, The Awful Truth was chosen for preservation in the National Film Register, deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


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

Molly Lamont as Barbara Vance

Esther Dale as Mrs. Leeson

Joyce Compton as Dixie Belle Lee

Robert Allen as Frank Randall

Robert Warwick as Mr. Vance

Mary Forbes as Mrs. Vance

Skippy as Mr. Smith, the dog (uncredited)



Running time: 90 Minutes Black and white

Camera: Joseph Walker

Editing: Al Clark

Art direction: Sephen Gooson, Lionel Banks

Costumes: Robert Kalloch