Monday, 16 April 2018

"The Awful Truth" & "The Lady Eve" - two of the funniest films I've ever seen

I must have watched part of The Awful Truth, a1937 screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn, many moons ago, because I recognised some of the scenes - but I definitely don't remember this next section of the movie, and I can't believe I would have forgotten it. While a rich Manhattan couple wait for their divorce to come through, the wife dates an Oklahoma oilman, while her husband dates a nightclub performer. This is what happens when they all meet, by chance...

Later, having successfully scuppered Irene Dunn's proposed marriage to Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant has a whirlwind romance with an extravagantly wealthy heiress who believes that her fiancé (for reasons we needn't go into) has a sister. In this next sequence, the "sister" unexpectedly turns up at a gathering at the heiress's home:
As I watched The Awful Truth late last night, it kept climbing my chart of all-time favourite comedy films, and, by the time "The End" came up, it had sailed right into the Top Ten. I'm not sure I've ever seen two better comic acting performances: I sort of expect it from Cary Grant, but Irene Dunn is a revelation  She's as adept as her co-star at the bits of business between her lines - the facial reactions, the little noises, the physical stuff etc. Grant had the knack of making his comedy co-stars seem funny - here, Irene Dunn more than returns the compliment.

Despite recently reading many glowing accounts of The Lady Eve (1941), I didn't think I'd much enjoy it,  because I've never considered Barbara Stanwyck or Henry Fonda to be naturally funny actors,  and I've never bought into Ms Stanwyck as an irresistibly gorgeous glamour girl. Besides, they were hardly the first choices for their roles:  Brian Aherne, Joel McCrea, Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Goddard and Fred MacMurray were all considered. As it's a Preston Sturgess movie, I suspected the "comedy" would consist mainly of fast-faced, hit-and-miss, slapstick folderol swirling around the two stars. My suspicions proved utterly unfounded. Here, in an erotically-charged scene reminiscent of the one in The 39 Steps where Madeleine Carroll has to remove her wet stocking while handcuffed to Robert Donat, Barbara Stanwyck, the conwoman daughter of a conman father busily cheating cruise ship passengers at cards, sets about seducing Henry Fonda, the naive heir to an ale-brewing business, who has just returned from a year-long zoological expedition "up the Amazon" (a phrase which I'll probably never hear again without sniggering):
Unsurprisingly, the first version of the script was rejected by the Hayes Office. Surprisingly, the one used in the film got through - God knows what sort of hoodoo Sturgess habitually used on the censors to get them to okay stuff that I suspect would have been rejected outright if anyone else had submitted it. 

One of the other surprising aspects of the film is the amount of slapstick Henry Fonda is called on to perform - and how brilliantly he performs it. The next time I watch it, I really must count the number of times he falls over onto his arse or face - at least a dozen, I reckon. Sturgess harnesses Fonda's somewhat prim, abstracted, humourless onscreen persona to great effect., while Barbara Stanwyck is a perfect foil for her co-star. She isn't asked to match Katharine Hepburn or Irene Dunn as a comedienne - and she's simply perfect for her role (she even manages a creditable English accent, which, after the atrocious Irish one she produced in Union Pacific, is unexpected, to put it mildly). What both manage so triumphantly is to reverse gender roles - Fonda is essentially the naive, unsuspecting female heirless to Stanwyck's predatory, sexually voracious male stalker. 
I've been wondering why the so-called screwball comedies of the late '30s and early '40s, to which I've never been particularly partial, are now hitting the spot. Why, in recent months, have films such as The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth, Holiday, Nothing Sacred (here), My Man Godfrey and Topper (both covered here) proved such a delight, such a treat? Partly, I suppose, it's because they're escapist - apart from the Forgotten Men of the Great Depression who appear in Godfrey - there are no references to social issues in any of them. Second, while there's some gentle satire about their lifestyles and attitudes of the super-rich (particularly in My Man Godfrey and Holiday), we're not constantly being encouraged to see these sophisticated, handsome, beautiful, wealthy folk leading impossibly privileged existences amidst glamorous surroundings as evil or hateful - and, unlike in many British films of the period, ordinary folk aren't routinely portrayed as the dimwitted representatives of a separate, lesser race (perhaps because American film-makers assigned that humiliating role to black characters). Another definite bonus is the almost total absence of children or teenagers - unlike the majority of films released nowadays, these are entertainments created by grown-ups for grown-ups. 

The absence of profanity, jokes about bodily functions, nudity, and any explicit depictions of the sex act is, I find, an enormous relief. There's oodles of sexual innuendo, of course, but its necessary subtlety just makes it all the funnier. And there's something bracing about the almost total lack of sentimentality, the absence of the sort of frantic virtue-signalling which makes so many modern films hard to take. Of course, many films during Hollywood's Golden Age were dreadfully, nauseatingly sentimental, and there were plenty of films about social "issues"(although few of them dealt with current obsessions such as race, homosexuality, immigration or the gender pay-gap), but screwball comedies were where you went to escape from all that. Finally, many of these films were simply supreme examples of commercial cinematic craftsmanship - acting, direction, scriptwriting, set design, costumes, cinematography, you name it: ten years after the introduction of sound, these people had every aspect of talkies nailed. There's a lot of jewellery on display in these films - which seems fitting, because the best of the screwball comedies are hard, brilliant and shiny, like a collection of expertly-cut diamonds, and, like diamonds, they never lose their sparkle (have you been drinking again? - Ed.)

Apart from a few clips, The Awful Truth and The Lady Eve aren't available for free on YouTube, but you can "rent" The Lady Eve from Amazon Prime Video (it's worth paying the extra quid for the HD version, because it looks sensational), while The Awful Truth is available from both Amazon Prime and YouTube Movies.


  1. "The Awful Truth". It takes a great comic actor to make you laugh out loud by making sarcastic quips about places you know little about [I know it takes 24-hours to get to Tulsa, but that's about it].

    In your previous post about film you mentioned "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" without a reference to the great Victor Buono. Two years earlier [1962] he teamed up with Bette Davis in "Baby Jane" to deliver the scene where he accompanies BJ on the piano while she delivers "I have written a letter to Daddy". Buono was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting for this small role. There are few laughs like this in modern cinema.
    It is all giant gorillas and gross vulgarity and cringeworthy PC-crap about the vociferous BAME or LBGT communities. I wish they would give it a rest.

    1. They won't give it a rest, because it makes them feel morally superior.

      I also remember Buono fondly as the villain King Tut in the '60s Batman TV series. Never out of work. Died of a heart attack at the age of 43.