Moment #6: Still on the screwball trail, this is one of the BFI’s ‘ten great’ screwball comedies. It won its director, Leo McCarey, an Oscar, leading woman Irene Dunne an Oscar nomination, and established Cary Grant as a leading man. And watching it, you can see why: it’s wonderfully written, sharply plotted, moves along at pace, is packed full of fine comic moments, several involving their dog, and it takes you, eventually, to the place you want to be. As a scriptwriter I once worked with observed, you need to take the audience where it wants to go, but not by the route they expect to get there.
The film is set, mostly, in the ninety days from the date of the divorce. I could have picked any one of a dozen moments or more from the film, but the sequence that sets up the plot is a sublime piece of staging. Jerry Warriner, played by Grant, has been away, apparently but most likely not in Florida, and he returns home with some friends to find his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) away. Well, he finds out that she’s away quite slowly.
First, one of the women in the group scans the table with the mail on it and observes that there are some letters on the table for Lucy, some from yesterday.
JERRY: That’s the trouble with most marriages today. People are always imagining things. (Beat) The road to Reno is paved with suspicions. The first thing you know is they all end up in a divorce court.
GUEST: The broad-minded man from the Rio Grande.
JERRY: If you think I’m going to get a chance to prove my broadmindedness any minute you’re crazy. No, Lucy’s really up at her Aunt Patsy’s cabin, I’ll bet on it.
And Jerry’s on a roll, extolling the virtues of Aunt Patsy’s cabin as we see Aunt Patsy arrive in shot behind him, seen by everyone in the room except for Jerry.
AUNT PATSY (her first words): Any idea where Lucy is? You know she invited me to this…
At which point Lucy arrives, looking stunning in white, followed a moment or two later by her singing teacher, and a long story about how they’d been on their way home from a concert when the car broke down and they’d had to spend the night in “the nastiest little inn you ever saw,” insisting of course that it was all completely innocent.
LUCY: Can’t have a happily married life if you’re always going to be suspicious of each other.
JERRY: Right again […]
LUCY: But I don’t know why I’m boring all of you with private matters.
GUEST: Oh, we’re not bored.
LUCY: No one’s interested in mine except for Jerry, and he knows it’s innocent, just as he knows (pause), well, that he just got back from Florida.
Part of the ambiguity is probably to dance around the restrictions imposed on what films could show or say about sex, under the Hays Code, but the effect is to make the film funnier.
One of the moments I could have chosen is the scene in which Lucy and her new fiance, Dan Leeson, played by Ralph Bellamy, run into Cary Grant at a night club. This clip gives a sense of both the film’s dialogue and the comedy, and a version of this scene plays out in a different way later on in the film at a decisive point in the story.
Intolerable Cruelty riffs off The Awful Truth in several places, and I couldn’t also help wonder if Marilyn’s iconic scene in The Seven Year Itch borrowed from it. Its director, Billy Wilder, would certainly have been familiar with The Awful Truth, and in their way the two films have a similar theme.