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The awful truth

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  June 2, 2008

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.

When McCarey was at the top of his game, he could bring the same lighthandedness to melodrama that he did to comedy. Love Affair shifts elegantly between genres; the material is so over the top it’s practically camp, but it’s so beautifully directed, and the actors — including Maria Ouspenskaya as Boyer’s aged grandmother — are so good, you just let it overtake you. Even MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, a four-handkerchief special from 1937 about a loving old couple who are cast aside and separated by their selfish children, is hard to resist in places because of the delicacy with which McCarey handles the two actors, Beulah Bondi (who is superb) and Victor Moore. A more remarkable example is RUGGLES OF RED GAP, from 1935. Charles Laughton, in perhaps his best performance, plays a British valet who, in the first decade of the 20th century, leaves his master (the supremely understated Roland Young) and moves to a small town in Washington when a visiting American (Charlie Ruggles) wins him in a poker game. One of the most satisfying fish-out-of-water movies ever made, Ruggles of Red Gap balances the absurd contrast between the formal servant and his new environs with the poignant tale of a man, inured to servitude, who comes into his own in a country that permits the crossing of social lines. In a scene that possibly no other director could have pulled off, Laughton’s Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address in a saloon to a crowd of cowboys who stop dead in their tracks to listen to this foreigner pay quiet tribute to their greatest orator.

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