The Awful Truth was the first film to really show the world the persona Cary Grant carefully created for himself. It was a delicious mixture of debonair demeanour and a sense of never taking himself too seriously. However, like most performers Grant was a complicated individual with numerous neuroses, and rumours about his sexuality were constant throughout his life—he even sued Chevy Chase over making an allusion. He did find some comfort in the 1950s when he started taking a new drug called LSD, which he said made him feel for the first time “truly, deeply and honestly happy.” He would denounce the drug in the ’60s after pressure from a publicist, since he was one of the most notable users of the drug at the time, and prohibition of LSD had begun in the US in 1966.
The film itself is a typical screwball comedy, which is where Cary Grant expressed his persona most strongly. He was always too modern of an actor to jump on a horse and do westerns, for example (he never appeared in one, despite it being one of the major genres during his career), and even crime films were something that he struggled with. If you take one of his contemporaries (also a friend of Grant’s), James Stewart, the singularity is clear: Stewart was such a perfect everyman that he appeared in all sorts of films during his career, including many, many westerns. Grant came from a working-class family in Bristol, but he always just oozed chic sophistication. Here he plays the cosmopolitan husband Jerry Warriner, who becomes fed up with his wife’s cheating ways. Meanwhile, his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) is equally fed up with his philandering, so they decided to get a divorce. They try to move on from the relationship, but there are always forces at play trying to bring them back together.
Leo McCarey helmed the picture. I must confess that besides his anarchic Marx Bros. classic Duck Soup, which to be honest was as much directed by the Marx Bros. as by him, I haven’t seen any of McCarey’s other films (the fact that I still haven’t seen Make Way for Tomorrow is a serious omission.) However, it’s a classic example of the subgenre “comedies of remarriage,” which were one of the templates for screwball comedies but of course the idea goes back to Shakespeare. Grant did many of these, and His Girl Friday will always be the ultimate, and one of Grant’s finest works: Tarantino always gets his casts to watch it so “they know they can talk that fast.”
Overall, if you like the other Cary Grant screwball comedies that Criterion have brought out in the last year, buying this is really a no-brainer. It’s very funny, and the interplay between Grant and Dunne is pitch-perfect, even if it’s lacks the truly manic energy of His Girl Friday. The disc includes a new interview with critic Gary Giddins about McCarey, David Cairns’s visual essay on Grant’s performance, an audio interview with Dunne from 1978, and the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, in which Grant also performed. The accompanying essay is by Molly Haskell, who was an early feminist film critic.