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Becoming Cary Grant: The Awful Truth from Criterion

Awful

By Tony Williams.

It appears very unusual to think that the debonair star we tend to think of as an actual person was an invention, someone whom the actor himself would have liked to be in real life. Though seeing some of his films theatrically on first release such as The Pride and the Passion (1955), Indiscreet (1958) North by North-west (1959) and Operation Petticoat (1960), the majority of my viewing emerged from that now-lost repertory theater aspect of broadcast television in the UK, and it was not until much later that I became fully conversant with Cary Grant’s star persona. Yet even then, I wondered why he had a significant reputation when I viewed on television such problematic works as the 1947 The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (re-titled Bachelor Knight in England since nobody knew what a “bobby-soxer” was then), the bland Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948), and Every Girl Should Be Married (1948), the first two teaming him with the always interesting Myrna Loy and the second with Melvyn Douglas, both seasoned Hollywood 1930s stars who appear lost in the transition to post-war suburbia. Despite the effervescent performance of Betsy Drake in the third film, it is doubtful whether every contemporary woman would now agree with this post-war ideological mandate and the real life marriage between Grant and Drake did not last long anyway. Yet something appeared lacking in the first two films, not just in the dilution of Grant and Loy’s inherent star charisma but also influences in the post-war cinematic and social conformity that began after the first wave of HUAC hearings in Hollywood and the beginnings of McCarthyism. I read somewhere Myrna Loy once said that the post-war era resulted in less satisfactory female roles than was the case in the previous decade. This was absolutely true when one considers veiled possibilities existing in the pre-Hays Code era and screwball comedies that existed afterwards.

Awful 02As Richard Dyer has pointed out in his pioneering 1979 monograph, stars are artificial constructions often related to historical and social conditions and we may also add the influences of certain directors. Fortunately, while actors like Grant often made the mistake of straying too far away from their charismatic associations, there were always directors such as Hawks and Hitchcock who would restore them to their familiar characteristics that drew audiences to them in the first place. There were also others such as Leo McCarey who recognized the hidden potential in a former Paramount contract player and was responsible for the creation of a star persona that both director and actor developed.

This newly re-released DVD version of one of the great classic screwball comedies not only showcases the brilliant comedic talents of its two stars Irene Dunne and Grant but also represents one of the best examples of a genre initiated by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Hawks’ Twentieth Century (both 1934). It remains one of the key examples of the thesis within Stanley Cavell’s classic text Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981). Enough has been written on this subject to make any further comments superfluous and I urge those who have never seen The Awful Truth to do so, not just for the immaculate comic timing of its leading stars but also for the supporting performance of Ralph Bellamy as an oafish clod, one that he would repeat in a different manner in Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940). Hawks would cast Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and make honorable mention of the influence of the earlier film in the surname of Katherine Hepburn’s character, her performance as “Swinging Door Susie” in the jail sequence, her reference to Grant as “Jerry the Nipper,” and Hawks’s deliberate sexual explicit reference to a term also used deliberately in the earlier film that has nothing to do with felines – “Open the door and I’ll shoot my puss!” Canines are not excluded since Susan Vance’s dog George in Baby bears more than a passing resemblance to “Mr. Smith” in The Awful Truth who also played Asta in the first teaming of William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man (1934) where Dashiell Hammett’s detective couple becomes transformed into tipsy characters performing routines in recognizable screwball manner, a trait that did not occur in the latter examples of the series.

Following their usual procedure, Criterion supplies the Lux Radio Theatre 1939 60-minute radio version with Grant and  Claudette Colbert (a screwball heroine in her own right) introduced by the stentorian tones of Cecil B. DeMille who already regards his persona as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Grant’s then girlfriend Phyllis Brooks plays the role of heiress Barbara Vance, and DeMille articulates his future Cold War credentials by mention the use of his “intelligence service” to track down the “dripping wet” bodies of Grant and Brooks at the beach. (I don’t think DeMille finds the same humorous Hawksian overtones in this statement as I do.)

Ladies Should Listen, 1933

Ladies Should Listen (1933)

David Cairns provides a significant 16-minute video essay “Tell Me Lies about Cary Grant” in which he credits the creation of the future Grant star persona to director Leo McCarey whose emphasis on spontaneity and the lack of a consistent daily screenplay upset both Grant and Bellamy so much so that the former offered money to release him from this film and even suggested swapping roles with Bellamy himself! Cairns supplies revealing clips from some of Grant’s previous Paramount films to show how stiff and ungainly Grant was in his pre-1937 performances before McCarey (a veteran of silent comedy) worked his magic on his own 1954 version of A Star is Born, one who never looked back. Clips from Ladies Should Listen (1934), Kiss and Make Up (1934), I’m No Angel (1933), Wings in the Dark (1935), appear among others – but not Blonde Venus (1932) or She Done Him Wrong (1933), where Grant probably had every reason to be nervous of his co-star Mae West as in I’m No Angel, his 1936 British movie The Amazing Adventure (1936) nor his role as (Dis)Honorable Pinkerton in a 1932 version of Madame Butterfly with Sylvia Sidney in the title role co-starring an equally uncomfortable Charlie Ruggles as a fellow Naval Officer whom Hawks would later use to good comic effect in Bringing Up Baby. One should not kick a developing star when he is clearly down in his early career with clips from too many compromising  performances but Cairns recognizes the importance of Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlet (1935) and Topper (1937) as more successful attempts to begin polishing the rough diamond before McCarey begins his definitive work. With this director, Grant became less self-conscious and “taking the script away puts him in the present tense” making the actor “a star born from screwball” as Cairns succinctly notes. The extracts from James Harvey’s 1978 interview with Irene Dunne, a friend of the director who knew what to expect when she began filming, complements Cairns’ video essay, especially her comment “This was a director who loved spontaneity.”

Topper (1937)

Topper (1937)

The next feature is an interview with Gary Giddins on the unique role of McCarey as director whose scenes in The Awful Truth often plays as they would have done in a silent film with segments of non-slapstick, abbreviated physical comedy, anti-musical segments where every song in the film serves to “break up the group” as opposed to musical numbers in Astaire-Rogers films, as their use in the films of Capra and other screwball directors. Giddins also points out that economically affected Great Depression audiences would not resent films about the rich as long as they liked the characters. Thus a difference exists between the Warriner couple and the nouveau riche Oklahoma Leesons, to say nothing of the stuffy, high society Vance family whom Lucy saves Jerry from making a mistake by marrying into in the same way that Walter Burns will save Hildy in His Girl Friday. All original couples ideally belong together in these two version of the Hollywood comedy of remarriage.

Molly Haskell’s accompanying booklet “Divorce McCarey Style” provides an ideal, well-written concluding complement to the features on this DVD that exemplifies Criterion’s acknowledged professional expertise

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-editor with Esther C.M. Yau of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017) now in paperback, he is also a contributing editor to Film International.

Read also:

DVD as Reference Library: His Girl Friday on Criterion

“Hello Darkness, My Old Friend”: Criterion’s Only Angels Have Wings

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