The Awful Truth
In this Oscar-winning farce, Cary Grant (in the role that first defined the Cary Grant persona) and Irene Dunne exude charm, cunning, and artless affection as an urbane couple who, fed up with each other’s infidelities, resolve to file for divorce. Try as they each might to move on, the mischievous Jerry can’t help but meddle in Lucy’s ill-matched engagement to a corn-fed Oklahoma businessman (Ralph Bellamy), and a mortified Lucy begins to realize that she may be saying goodbye to the only dance partner capable of following her lead. Directed by the versatile Leo McCarey, a master of improvisation and slapstick as well as a keen and sympathetic observer of human folly, The Awful Truth is a warm but unsparing comedy about two people whose flaws only make them more irresistible.
Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth comes to Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection. It is presented on this dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration conducted by Sony. The original negative is long lost so the primary source for the restoration was a 35mm nitrate duplicate negative created in 1943 along with a couple of other nitrate prints. A nitrate fine-grain was used to fill in missing or severely degraded frames that couldn’t be used in any of the other elements.
Source elements hinder things a wee bit yet even then there is a wonderful filmic texture to the finished product, thanks mostly to the rendering of the grain present. Grain can be heavy, a byproduct of the print used I’m sure, but it looks natural, doesn’t pixilate, and neither shows signs of compression nor noise. And despite this not being the original negative the level of detail is still surprising, the image featuring some beautifully crisp close-ups of the actors along with longer shots that don’t come off too shabby themselves, conveying a sufficient sense of depth. Patterns in some of the outfits are clearly visible and there’s also some nice looking textures to be found.
Contrast and gray levels are also strong a majority of time, with clean tonal shifts, strong whites and rich blacks. When a less than ideal source has to be used, though, it’s in this area where it becomes evident. Sporadically throughout the film (usually somewhere during a transition) the contrast shifts a bit, turning darker, which eats up details. The image also softens a bit more. These shifts usually only last a few frames and are infrequent so they’re not in any way a real problem, just something the viewer will probably notice.
Still, that fairly insignificant side effect is thankfully the worst aspect this presentation has to offer. Outside of that the image is about as clean as can be, no significant marks or damage ever showing up, the amount of effort having gone into the restoration being instantly recognizable. Altogether it’s a wonderful looking image.
The mono sound track, delivered in lossless PCM 1.0, fairs surprisingly well. Despite some audible noise in the background it’s quite clean for its age with adequate fidelity. Dialogue is easy to hear and the music manages to remain clean without any severe harshness or distortion.
I’m a bit surprised at the modest little collection of supplements we get but at the very least they’re all good, the release going aiming for quality-over-quantity, even the inclusion of the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation proving to be fascinating. These radio adaptations are just about standard for Criterion’s classic Hollywood releases but I found myself especially fascinated with this one and I can’t say why exactly. Maybe because this film had a lot of visual slapstick that the radio play tried to adapt over? The hour long feature (including commercials) is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the film (not the play on which it is based), sticking quite close to the general plot and featuring Cary Grant reprising his role (Claudette Colbert replaces Irene Dunne). Like other slapstick film-to-radio adaptations it’s the dialogue that shines (and a lot of that is kept) but it’s almost painful how it tries to adapt a lot of the visual gags from the film. For example, during the courtroom scene involving who Mr. Smith (the dog) will go to, the radio play retains the gag involving Lucy bribing the dog with a chew toy to come with her. This was a completely visual in the film of course but this adaptation has to stop to explain what just transpired since we obviously couldn’t see it, which of course destroys the pace. But smartly it doesn’t bother with some of the other visual gags and tries to turn them into more verbal ones or just leave them be: the scene where Dixie sings loses the skirt-lifting gag and focuses more on Lucy’s verbal venom while the dance between her and Daniel is completely dropped. The one-hour time slot (again, with commercials) also means the story is rushed through, some scenes truncated severely or dropped entirely (the police escort near the end is completely gone). It also rushes the conclusion, pretty much getting right to the point, in turn cutting out all the playfulness with the door that won’t stay closed. I like the inclusion of these adaptations (even if it’s really just for posterity) but this one made me more aware of the visuals and the editing of the film, highlighting just how well constructed it really is.
Further examining the film are two more academic features: an interview with Gary Giddens and a visual essay by David Cairns called Tell Me Lies About Cary Grant. Cairns’ fascinating 16-minute essay looks at how this film cemented the Cary Grant persona by first looking at some of Grant’s earlier films and how he worked to build up his screen image, trying different things out here and there that would work for him later, though with varying results at the time (he could either come off too self-conscious or too stiff most of the time). Cairns feels it was McCarey, though, that saw Grant’s strengths and how they could be best used in a comedy, even his self-consciousness (the gag with the hat and Grant’s ears was probably born out of Grant’s own insecurities with his ears). Interestingly Grant was so horrified by what McCarey had him doing he even tried to get out of the film, but thankfully that didn’t work out.
Giddens (who I have just seen or heard from in so many features as of late it’s almost like he’s becoming a friend) talks a bit more generally about the film and how McCarey constructed it. Though there was technically a script (it was required before a film would be greenlit) that already changed the original play significantly, that shooting script was pretty much trashed and scenarios were usually come up with by McCarey on the day of shooting and written up right there and then. This did lead to some “chaos” (that is how actor Ralph Bellamy would describe the set) but to the surprise of just about everyone in the cast at least the film did come together. An included audio interview from 1978 with Irene Dunne pretty much confirms this, and she describes some of her unease, but she would got right into it (she recalls how she couldn’t properly do a “bump” in her one dance routine close to the end so she just worked with that, which of course offers some good laughs). I felt there was some spontaneity in the film (at least its energy implied this) but I admit I actually had no idea how improvised this film really was. Dunne’s interview only runs 7-minutes while Giddens’ is 24-minutes.
A lengthy essay by Molly Haskell closes off the release in the included booklet (yes, an actual booklet). To an extent she summarizes some of the points found in the disc’s features though puts more focus on McCarey’s way of playing out jokes in this film with references to some of his other work.
So no, it didn’t take long to get through everything but I still feel Criterion has done a great job breaking down the individual elements that went into the film. It’s one of those films that can almost look effortless but the features (even the radio play) set that straight rather quickly.
Not a stacked special edition but it still sports some solid supplements and a really pleasing looking restoration and final presentation. This should make fans and admirers of the film very happy.