The “Broad-Minded Marriage” in The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth has been described as a “tuning fork” for other comedies, and it’s obvious why. The tone of this film is so light, so crazed, so assured – the laughs come like clockwork – you know you are in great hands.

You can see the set-ups for disaster and comedy a mile away, but instead of the plot feeling predictable, you just start to get excited, like: “Oh God, this is gonna be bad … how are they gonna get out of this one??” You watch with ghoulish delight as other people’s lives fall apart spectacularly.

Apparently, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne both wanted to walk off the picture. They had no script. Leo McCarey, the director, would walk onto the set every morning, and say stuff like, “Okay, so you come through that door, call the dog, and …. just stand over there … and we’ll see how it goes.” They had no script. Cary Grant wrote an 8-page letter to the head of production at Columia, Harry Cohn, and he entitled it: “WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE”.


But eventually – Cary Grant saw that McCarey had a method to his madness, that his approach WASN’T random, and that he was asking the actors to trust the craziness of the situation, rather than trying to control it. Grant and Dunne, after commiserating with one another miserably about how insecure they felt, finally succumbed to the process – and thank God they did.

Half of the film is improvised. Which is so amazing, because it is so freakin’ FUNNY. Like – laugh-out-loud funny. And it’s subtle behavioral humor for the most part:

— Irene Dunne playing piano as Ralph Bellamy sings “Home on the Range” very very very badly. Her FACE.

— Cary Grant’s little mannerisms, that go on throughout EVERY SCENE, in a private running commentary. His “tsk tsk tsk”, and “Hmm”, he always seems to be muttering to himself about the events around him. It’s hilarious. Even when he’s not the focus of the scene, he has 5,000 things going on with him.

— When Irene Dunne breaks into laughter during a recital where she is singing – she sees Cary Grant fall off his chair in the back of the room – she’s singing – and … hard to explain … but she laughs … ON KEY … and then somehow finishes the song. For me, it was the funniest moment in the movie – although Cary Grant’s duet with his dog was also howlingly funny.

— The woman who played Irene Dunne’s Aunt Patsy … This woman was a comedic genius. She hit a home-run with every one of her jokes. “Here’s your diploma.” Too. Funny.

The Awful Truth is about a married couple, who are obviously crazy about each other, but who fight all the time. He’s suspicious that she’s cheating on him, she’s suspicious he’s cheating on her. She seems to have more reason to be suspicious than he does. (After all, the first scene is Cary Grant lying underneath a sunlamp at his athletic club, trying to get a tan quickly, in order to convince his wife he had actually been in Florida for the past week like he told her – he says to his buddy, “Of course I lie to her – I don’t want her to be embarrassed!”).

He has a lot of “broad-minded” ideas about marriage – that the couples should keep having separate fun, not be so conventional, not get all caught up in having to be together all the time – (he has a big monologue about it: “The road to Reno is paved with suspicion…”) However, he can’t actually LIVE with a “broad-minded” marriage, and actually – HE just wants to have fun, but SHE can’t start gallivanting about with other men – THAT isn’t cool with him, and so when he thinks she’s having an affair, due to some screwball misunderstanding, he flips OUT.

They decide to get divorced. They begin to fight for custody of their dog, Mr. Smith (the same dog Cary Grant chased around in Bringing up Baby). Both get involved with other people. And both start campaigns to mess up the new romances of the other.

Hilarity ensues.

Cary Grant has one pratfall which literally made me guffaw out loud. You KNOW it’s coming, but knowledge doesn’t hold a candle to first-hand experience. He falls once, and then the fall just keeps going and going and going … and of course, he is in a situation where he is supposed to be very very quiet. It’s riotous. You just LOVE him. I LOVE him for giving me joy like that.

And the last scene is rightly famous. They are (for various and sundry lunatic reasons, involving a crashed car, a busted-up dinner party, and rides on motorcycles) stuck out at her Aunt Patsy’s house in the country, and their divorce is going to be final at midnight. She goes to bed in one room, he goes to bed in another room – both of them wearing borrowed pajamas. The sexual tension is huge. You are dying for them to make up, to kiss, something!!

A couple of screwball things happen – and he finally stands there in her doorway, staring at her – she’s lying in bed, he looks ridiculous in his borrowed nightshirt – and they start to try to talk about their marriage, and where it went wrong, but basically what is REALLY going on, is that he is trying to figure out a way to say to her: “Can I get in that bed with you?”

It’s even more amazing to look at the dialogue in this last scene, knowing that most of it is improvised. No wonder the two of them loved to work together so well. They’re so in tune with one another. It’s like a dance.

Here’s a snippet of that exchange. The entire thing is done with desperate seriousness. That’s why it’s so funny:

Jerry: I told you we’d have trouble with this…In a half an hour, we’ll no longer be ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ Funny, isn’t it?

Lucy: Yes, it’s funny that everything’s the way it is on account of the way you feel.

Jerry: Huh?

Lucy: Well, I mean if you didn’t feel the way you do, things wouldn’t be the way they are, would they? Well, I mean things could be the same if things were different.

Jerry: But things are the way you made them.

Lucy: 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…You’re all confused, aren’t you?

Jerry: Uh-huh. Aren’t you?

Lucy: No.

Jerry: Well, you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different, except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool. Well, I’m not now. So, as long as I’m different, don’t you think that, well, maybe things could be the same again? Only a little different, huh?

(I believe the spirit of this confusing conversation is also the inspiration for another one of the exchanges in What’s Up Doc. She says glumly to him, “I know I’m different, I know. But from now on, I’m gonna try to be the same.” He asks, “Same as what?” She says, “Same as people who aren’t different.”)

What started out as an annoyance to Cary Grant (the fact that there was no script, not really) ended up being the thing, the element, that shot him (and his career) off into the stratosphere. It was after The Awful Truth that Cary Grant became “important”.

It’s interesting: sometimes the things we resist most ferociously (in this case, improvisation) is EXACTLY what we need to do in order to succeed, fulfill our destinies, etc.

Other actors freeze up, or start to behave in highly conventional (read: BORING) ways when they don’t know what they’re doing, when they don’t have a script. Their imaginations aren’t fluid, they’re too afraid that they’re going to look foolish. Well, as we know, Cary Grant had no fear of looking foolish – that was part of his appeal. Improvisation is a gift and Cary Grant had it. He was, obviously, not just a funny man because the SCRIPTS he got were funny – he obviously was a funny man in real life, he had a relatively comedic outlook on things, and this was the first film where he really got to let that loose.

His fear at the beginning of the shootended up being a blessing: He just had to leap off that cliff, and stop trying to control everything.

Miracles of comedy followed. Zany, wacko, and STILL funny today. Still a reference point for other comedies.

Amazingly – everyone was nominated for Oscars except for Cary Grant. This is the price he paid for making it look so easy!!

Watch this movie and then watch Notorious and you’ll realize: damn, this guy really is without peers.

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9 Responses to The “Broad-Minded Marriage” in The Awful Truth

  1. Alex says:

    Irene Dunne = Forgotten Genius.

  2. MikeR says:

    “It’s interesting: sometimes the things we resist most ferociously (in this case, improvisation) is EXACTLY what we need to do in order to succeed, fulfill our destinies, etc.”

    That’s definitely been true for me. I’m STILL in the process of learning that difficult but critical lesson…

  3. bill says:

    you know cary is a serious obsession for you sheila…

    And I’m right there with you.

    No matter times you write it…cary’s brilliant, cary’s amazing, cary formed the dna building blocks of life…I just shake my head and mumble, “she’s right, she’s right. Has she said this all before? Hell yes. And it needs to be said over and over and over and over…”

    And as I’ve probably babbled before, Cary Grant IS the definitive MOVIE STAR of the 20th century!

  4. BSTommy says:

    We watched the Awful Truth in a film class once upon a time…when Irene Dunne gets up and indignantly accuses somebody in the high class crowd of taking her purse (it was her purse, right? it’s been too long since I’ve seen it…I’m embarrassed now because I’m not exactly sure)…I may have been the only one in the class who found it funny, but I distracted many people by laughing nearly until I cried.

  5. Bryan says:

    This comment isn’t related to “The Awful Truth,” but your assertion, “Escapism is good for the soul,” reminded me of Tolkien’s response to critics who accused the genre of fantasy of being “escapist.” Tolkien replied that the people who are most opposed to the idea of escape are prison wardens.

    Nice one.

  6. red says:


    A couple months back, Vanity Fair did a huge article on Irene Dunne – which made me so happy!! I think it might have been a book excerpt, actually – but there were tons of pictures, it was quite a generous essay.

    Maybe not so forgotten???

    The woman got 5 Academy Award nominations – she was one of the great actresses this country has produced.

  7. red says:


    My obsessions are almost like having a second job. I take them very very seriously. :)

    Glad to know I’m not alone!!

  8. red says:


    People who scorn things for being escapist don’t know SQUAT about life. Tolkien was right!

  9. red says:


    Ha! Yes! She’s pretending to be her husband’s floozy showgirl sister, and she crashes the uptight party … heh heh heh

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