The legend of Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth is that it was largely improvised from day to day. This is a legend perfectly in tune with the ethos of the film itself, in which spontaneity, playfulness, and the ability to laugh at one's own 'act' while in the middle of it – to see it with the eye of the person who is seeing right through you at that moment – are so central to its glorious, warm sense of humour, and its exploration of the theme of how to make marriage work.
But the script structure, however it was arrived at, is satisfying. It starts with a rupture: Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne), believing they have caught each other in infidelities, lies and – worst of all – a lack of trust, decide to divorce.
It takes half the film, covering Lucy's flirtation with Dan (Ralph Bellamy), for her to realise she still loves Jerry. But then it's his turn to hook up with someone, a 'madcap heiress'.
Once all these bets are off, the story becomes a road-movie leading to a cabin in the woods – with two beds, and thirty minutes left before the divorce decree becomes final.
McCarey perfects every ingredient of the romantic comedy here, from the opposition of New Yorkers and Southerners, to the role of games, songs and dances as ways of sorting out the character's affections and allegiances.
Full of splendid minor characters and inspired bits of business, the film also has a heartbreakingly serious moment when Jerry and Lucy remember their unofficial marriage vow ("This comes from the heart, I'll always adore you").
Of all the great movies, this may be the one that most resists description in words – although some of film culture's finest writers, including James Harvey and Stanley Cavell, have tried their best.
This has much to do with its small jokes of subtle verbal delivery, where ordinary phrases are transformed by timing, rhythm and tone: from Lucy's repeated "had better go" and Jerry's stumbling on "Tulsa" to Dan's exasperated "Mom!" via the black servant's reaction to Jerry's fake tan: "You're looking weellll ...".
Above all, the film is a monument to the sheer, magical lovability of its stars.
MORE McCarey: An Affair to Remember
© Adrian Martin April 2003