In 1937 Leo McCarey won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Awful Truth. Upon receiving the award he said “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” He was referring to the other film he released that year, Make Way For Tomorrow, and while Make Way is indeed a great film it’s also a downer that cost him his job at Paramount and allowed him to move to Columbia Studios to create the comic masterpiece that is The Awful Truth. And despite concerns from Columbia studio heads the film went on to become a huge hit for the studio and, as noted, netted McCarey a much-deserved Oscar – even if he deserved it for both films, rather than just this one.
The film concerns the exploits of Lucy and Jerry Warriner (Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, whose on-screen chemistry is spectacular), a married couple who, like most couples, have their problems. But their problems revolve mostly around Jerry’s suspicions that his wife is cheating on him – which she’s not, as it happens – with her handsome European voice coach. Despite Lucy’s dismissal of his idea as ridiculous Jerry’s concerns escalate to the point where they decide to divorce, with a waiting period before things are finalized. They separate, Lucy gets custody of Mr. Smith the dog (though Jerry gets visiting rights), and each one goes on to date others. Naturally, this being a comedy – and a romantic one at that – it only takes a stroll through a few bad relationships and a few attempts at sabotaging their other romances for them to realize they’re right for each other and still in love.
I didn’t bother with a spoiler alert because this is the template for a thousand if not a million romantic comedies. And the film works better than most largely because of Leo McCarey’s improvisational approach to filmmaking. McCarey was known for arriving on set with no script whatsoever, just a general idea of what they were going to film for the day, and then working (and to read most accounts “working” might even be too strong a word, perhaps “playing” is more appropriate) with his actors to create the scene, having them improvise ideas while the cameras rolled and then as often as not putting those moments in the final cut so that the freshest ideas stayed in the film. McCarey is a subtle director of actors, not a visual stylist, even if he always places the camera in just the right spot. In his films glances and faces mean everything; dialogue too, though that of course isn’t as much planned out as spontaneous. It’s an approach he learned from working with comic actors from Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (who he is credited with first pairing onscreen), W.C. Fields, and The Marx Brothers. And his own personal comic flair can’t be understated – there is some scripted material of course (screenwriter Viña Delmar also got an Oscar nomination for this), but he’s funny enough himself that McCarey claimed after this film that Cary Grant had stolen his own persona to create the character he’d come to be known for (also the model of a persona Ian Fleming partially used as a basis for his James Bond character).comedies, most of them far lesser than
Given the improvisational factor and the smarts of everyone involved from McCarey to Grant and Irene Dunne, it’s hard to know how much of the fantastic dialogue was scripted, made up on the spot, or partly written and then modified. But I know that when the couple has an exchange that goes:
Jerry Warriner: But things are the way you made them.
Lucy Warriner: Oh, no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn't make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you're the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.
that’s simply a great comic sequence, regardless of how it found its way to the screen. But experiencing dialogue like that and having it work, hearing the bon mots that they throw down but never throw away, seeing the chemistry than Dunne and Grant create on screen – that’s the fun of the film. And knowing that between the actors, Delmar’s screenplay, and McCarey’s penchant for doing things on the fly to keep things off-balance and exciting, it’s impossible to get to the root of where each laugh came from. It’s the collective art of filmmaking at its finest from the golden period of Hollywood comedies, and you can hardly do better in finding a great film. But be sure to see McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and see for yourself just how well his approach works to drama and you won’t be sorry. He certainly wouldn’t think so.
- Patrick Brown