THE AWFUL TRUTH: A screwball comedy reimagined as a comedy of remarriage.
Among the signal directors of 1930s comedies — one thinks of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, and George Cukor — Leo McCarey’s name has been largely forgotten. Yet he was responsible for three of the greatest comedies of the Depression era: Duck Soup (the most sublime of the Marx Brothers movies), Ruggles of Red Gap, and The Awful Truth. He was an odd duck, though, as fond of melodrama as he was of romantic comedy and farce. The retrospective hosted by the Harvard Film Archive beginning this Sunday, “Leo McCarey, Screwball and Beyond,” is long overdue.
“Leo McCarey, Screwball and Beyond” | Harvard Film Archive | June 8-16
“SILENT COMEDY SHORTS” | June 8 at 3 pm
THE AWFUL TRUTH | June 8 at 7 pm
THE MILKY WAY | June 8 at 9 pm
GOING MY WAY | June 9 at 7 pm
RALLY ’ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! | June 9 at 9:30 pm
LOVE AFFAIR | June 13 at 7 pm
INDISCREET | June 13 at 9 pm
AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER | June 14 at 7 pm
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW | June 14 at 9:15 pm
THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S | June 15 at 3 pm
RUGGLES OF RED GAP | June 15 at 7 pm
MY SON JOHN | June 15 at 9 pm
DUCK SOUP | June 16 at 7 pm
ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON | June 16 at 8:30 pm
McCarey was brought up in the Hal Roach school of silent comedy, which means that by the time he made his first talkie, INDISCREET (which the HFA will screen a rare print of), he’d learned how to work quickly and economically, he’d perfected a kind of visual shorthand, and he’d developed a light, sure touch with actors. The series begins with a program of his comic shorts — three late silents starring Laurel and Hardy (including one of their most famous two-reelers, “Big Business”) and one with Charley Chase called “Dog Shy.” “Dog Shy,” the earliest of the quartet, was released in 1926, and it was the 40th short McCarey directed, so he was a veteran long before 1929, when he began to make features. His physical work with Chase and with Stan and Ollie bears fruit in sequences like the astonishingly poetic (and uproarious) human-mirror bit in DUCK SOUP, where Groucho encounters Chico and Harpo dressed up to look like him, or the classic scenes in THE AWFUL TRUTH involving Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, and an expressive wire-haired terrier known as Mr. Smith — played by the same canny canine performer who kept showing up as Asta in the Thin Man pictures. (In “Dog Shy,” Chase is continually being bested by a frisky dog; their charming interchanges are a warm-up for the Mr. Smith episodes.)
Dunne could be shrill and overstated, but she was at her best for McCarey — not just in The Awful Truth but also in the 1939 weeper LOVE AFFAIR. The Awful Truth is a screwball comedy reimagined as, in critic Stanley Cavell’s term, a comedy of remarriage, in which the hero and heroine don’t begin as strangers, and the adversarial position in which they find themselves at the outset of the story is serious enough to warrant separation or even (in His Girl Friday, say) divorce. Dunne and Grant, who are marvelous together, split up because they can’t trust each other and then spend the movie scheming — first Grant does, then Dunne — how to overcome the obstacles their silly suspicions have thrown in the way of their romance. The film offers some memorable broad comic sequences, but its cornerstone is the easy, sexy banter between the two stars. Love Affair begins as romantic comedy. Dunne and the ineffable Charles Boyer (in one of a number of brilliant but rarely seen performances he gave in this period) meet on an ocean liner bound for New York, fall in love despite their allegiance to other partners, and part with the promise to meet again in six months if they decide, individually, that they’ve found a focus for what up to that point have been indolent, shallow lives. If you’ve seen the much more famous An Affair To Remember, which McCarey also directed, 18 years later (or even if you’ve only seen Sleepless in Seattle, which alludes to it), then you know the proposed meeting place — the top of the Empire State Building — and the reason Dunne doesn’t make their reunion.