Leo McCarey’s​  Duck Soup (1933) has one of the cinema’s great moments of sceptical philosophy. Chico and Harpo Marx, both disguised as Groucho, are in Margaret Dumont’s bedroom, though Chico is hiding under the bed. Harpo departs and Chico suddenly appears. Dumont is shocked. Didn’t he just leave? Chico says he didn’t, and Dumont says she saw him with her own eyes. Chico says: ‘Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?’ Dumont was right to believe her own eyes, but wrong (twice) to believe that a person who looked like Groucho was Groucho.

The easy moral would be that appearances deceive, especially in a farce. The more interesting inference would be that simple perceptions rely on whole decks of assumption, and with this we arrive at McCarey’s later film The Awful Truth (1937), now released by the Criterion Collection in a gleaming new print. Everything depends here on the difference between being caught out in a lie, as Cary Grant is, and caught out in a truth, as Irene Dunne is. This is the phrase Dunne herself uses: ‘You come home and caught me in a truth – and it seems there’s nothing less logical than the truth.’ They are Jerry and Lucy Warriner, happily married, indeed made for each other, as the film goes on to show, although he needs to escape from his bliss now and again.

He’s been in New York while pretending to be in Florida, not up to much, as far we can tell, apart from exercising his freedom. The proof of his lying is the basket of California oranges he bought for her, the first of a set of jokes about the inability of New Yorkers to tell one part of the rest of America from another. Later in the film he says: ‘Oklahoma … Ever since I was a small boy that name has been filled with magic for me.’ He means he doesn’t know where the place is, and doesn’t understand why anyone would want to know.

Lucy has spent the night at an inn with her singing teacher because the man’s car broke down. ‘How can I believe you?’ Jerry says: ‘The car broke down. People stopped believing that one before cars stopped breaking down.’ The truth is awful because it looks so much like an incompetent lie.

Towards the end of the movie, just before their final reconciliation, the couple have a helpless, comic conversation about the way things are, which now sounds like a forerunner of the philosophy sketch in Beyond the Fringe (‘”Moore,” I said …’). ‘It’s funny,’ Lucy says, ‘that everything is the way it is on account of the way you feel.’ Jerry says: ‘But things are the way you made them.’ Lucy says: ‘Oh no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn’t make them that way at all.’ Who you gonna believe, she is effectively asking, me or your own clever prejudices? It gets worse. Lucy says: ‘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.’ Fortunately, she’s wrong, not perhaps because he believes in her innocence – how could a stylish man give up his entitlement to suspicion? – but because he doesn’t want to lose her. He says he has been a fool, but is not one 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?’ Too bad Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, with its reversal of the same thought (‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’), is too far in the future to be a source.

It’s easy to believe, as Molly Haskell suggests in her shrewd and informative introduction to the release, that The Awful Truth is ‘the greatest screwball of them all’. And that it is the greatest of the comedies of remarriage that Stanley Cavell studies in his book Pursuits of Happiness. It’s a little harder to say why. The film is not as fast and zany as Bringing up Baby, and not as wise and worldly as His Girl Friday. Part of the answer to the question is, as Haskell says, the touch that McCarey brought from ‘silent film to the talky genre’, and the ‘blend of hilarity, nonsense and lyricism’ he had already created in Duck Soup. McCarey was responsible for the pairing of Laurel with Hardy, so he knew a lot about comic marriages. Some of the material he was using was quite old – The Awful Truth was based on a 1922 play by Arthur Richman, which had twice before been made into a film – and some of it was made up during the shooting. It’s said that Dorothy Parker worked on the screenplay, which is credited to Viña Delmar.

What strikes me now as so brilliant in the film is the consistent, apparently casual juxtaposing of the stylised depiction of a brittle social order with handsome doses of raw slapstick, as if the two modes were natural companions, could hardly live without each other. Jerry leans elegantly on a grand piano, defying his wife with his sheer, classy persistence on the path to divorce. The lid crashes down on his hand, and she laughs her head off. In a more dramatic, or let’s say more Marxist version of the same scene, he barges into a concert she is giving (the number is Tosti’s ‘La Serenata’, which includes laughter as part of the singing) and tries to sit discreetly at the back of the room, only to have the chair collapse beneath his weight. He didn’t expect this, of course, but he didn’t expect her to be singing either. He thought he would find her in bed with her lover. Not that he was jealous, or anything.

And then there is the whole spectacular visual meditation on dancing. Lucy is planning to marry the genial, obtuse Dan Leeson, a rich man from Oklahoma, as soon as her divorce comes through. She has pretended she can’t dance because she doesn’t want to take the floor with this clunky fellow, but one night she and Dan and Jerry find themselves together at a night club. In the screenplay, Dan just manages a waltz but can’t step into anything more complicated. In the movie, he boasts of the cups he has won for dancing – Lucy looks wistfully at Jerry and says ‘we never won any cups’ – and when the music turns to an up-beat tempo, Dan takes off into a version of the jitterbug, while Lucy tries vainly to keep up (she gets kicked accidentally), the rest of the dancers stop and watch in awe, and Jerry, having paid the band leader to do an encore of the same number, sits back to enjoy the whole ludicrous show.

The beauty of this scene, apart from its graceful screening of gracelessness, is that even as Jerry is enjoying the sight of his wife looking foolish, he can’t take his eyes off her. And the same occurs in the spectacular later scene where she pretends to be his sister, and ruins his chances with the heiress he thought he might marry. Everything she says when she visits the girl’s snooty family represents a supposedly lower-class crudity that makes Jerry as impossible a suitor as she was a jitterbug dancer. In the screenplay, she defends communism and a redistribution of income. The rich girl’s father is horrified until he figures out what she is doing. Then he admires her as much as Jerry does.

In this film, as Haskell says, we first see Cary Grant as he will become, the man ready for Hitchcock. And Irene Dunne consistently manages to look dippy and intelligent all at once. The last scene in the movie belongs to her because of her marvellous, discreet performance of worry and hope, and because she apparently leaves the choice to the man. Will he give up his stubborn sense of insult and connect with her again? It’s up to him. No, she makes it look as if it’s up to him. When she knows what he’s going to do, she lies back in her bed and smiles, and McCarey’s camera turns the smile into a significant supporting actor. This time things are the way she made them.

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