The Awful Truth …the matter of Mr. Smith

Divorce.  An ugly business.  It turns love into hate and dependency into burden.  Facts that are never truer than when young ones are involved – when they are forced to choose between those they love most.

Mr. Smith, or Smitty, as his friends and family know him, has to grapple with this difficult situation one afternoon in the case of Warriner vs. Warriner.  The judge decrees the divorce proceedings over when the plaintiff’s attorney brings “the matter of Mr. Smith” to the court’s attention.  Now forced to decide his own fate, Smitty is escorted into the courtroom.  He must choose between the two people he most loves – his caregivers, his confidants, and his playmates. Standing in the courtroom, head whipping from Lucy Warriner to her soon to be ex-husband, Jerry – an impossible decision must be made.  Suddenly, Smitty runs to the wife (the why won’t be divulged) and she gets sole custody.  Three lives change. Surely, he’ll be taken care of, but Smitty is now part of a broken home.

OK.  So that was all dramatized for effect.  That scene and situation is from one of the best screwball comedies from Hollywood’s golden age, 1937’s The Awful Truth from Columbia Pictures.  Mr. Smith, the protagonist in the scene described above, is played by loyal companion and male about town, Skippy – best known for his portrayal of Asta in the first two installments in The Thin Man series (later Astas were played by look-a-likes.)  Skippy’s costars in The Awful Truth are classic powerhouse talents, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.

By now you may have surmised The Awful Truth is about a married couple, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Grant and Dunne), who begin divorce proceedings due to unfounded suspicions on either side.  Throughout the film, the couple remains on the “outs” as they await the finalization of their divorce.  Hilarity ensues.  At different times embarrassed, annoyed and amused by each other and what each thinks of new romantic involvements – he, with a socialite, Molly Lavant (Barbara Vance) and she, with an oil-rich country bumpkin, Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy).  The Warriners do their best to poke fun and spoil the day.  Their commentaries, most often “inside” jokes no one else is privy to, a barrage of trips, falls and misadventures – all performed to perfection – and just too numerous to mention, result in movie magic.

The Awful Truth, released in the U.S. on October 31, 1937, is the first of three films that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together.  They followed The Awful Truth with 1940’s My Favorite Wife, another great screwball comedy and the romantic drama, Penny Serenade in 1941.  Adept at physical comedy, with impeccable comedic timing and delivery, possessing wonderful acting skills and musical prowess, Grant and Dunne would be enjoyable to watch together in almost anything.  Dare it be said that Ms. Dunne may well have been Mr. Grant’s greatest costar, matching wits and presence with one of the most talented stars to ever grace the silver screen.

Despite Irene Dunne’s talents,however, she is not the only costar in The Awful Truth that comes close to stealing scenes from Cary Grant (imagining that were possible).  The other, a star with an impressive career of his own, is Skippy.  The wire-haired terrier had seven films to his credit by the time The Awful Truth was released.  Comparable to many stars of The Golden Age, and far out-shining most stars of today, Skippy was a genuine triple threat.  Although he had a penchant for comedy, his range was quite remarkable.  He could do drama, sing, and dance with the best of ‘em.  He also had impeccable comedic timing in his own right – all of which he is called upon to exhibit in The Awful Truth.  Aside from playing the object of the two main characters’ affection, Mr. Smith plays a vital role in the fast-paced story, often acting as spoiler to the plots of deceit between the couple, ever funny as they might be.

Skippy’s role in the film, a supporting but key one, ensures continued interaction between the film’s stars.  Mr. Warriner was given visitation rights to his beloved pooch, you see, so he is always present and accounted for (thank you Smitty!).  It’s also worth mentioning that the couple would not have met in the first place if not for Mr. Smith.  Both fell in love with him in a pet shop on Madison Avenue – you know the one I mean.  It was between 47th and er…48th…er.  It’s frightfully immaterial, in any case.  The point is, they saw him, they dated and they became a family and lived happily ever after.  Well, until the divorce.  There would be no awful truth without Smitty.

Not unlike other screwball comedies of the 1930s, The Awful Truth was very well received by critics and audiences alike and became a big hit.  The film received six Academy Award nominations – Best Actress, Irene Dunne, Best Supporting Actor, Ralph Belamy, Best Film Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Director, Leo McCarey.  The film’s director being the only one to take home the coveted award.  All the Oscar nods are well deserved in this case.  There is no need to mention the travesty that neither Cary Grant nor Skippy received Oscar nods for their work in this film.  So it will remain unmentioned.

Interesting trivia worthy of mention is that The Awful Truth was made twice before this 1937 release and three other times overall.  First, as a silent film with the same title in 1925, then as an early talkie in 1929 also with the same title, and later remade as Let’s Do It Again in 1953 starring Jane Wyman and Ray Milland.  Our film, the 1937 version, remains the most popular and acclaimed.

Films like The Awful Truth are simply not made anymore – a definitive screwball comedy.  It’s difficult to remember when the last great film in
this genre was made, a genre that, to quote a song in one of the funniest scenes in the film, has “gone with the wind.”  This film is smart with hilarious dialogue delivered with razor-sharp clarity and speed, which often sounds improvised.  Accounts are that the script for the film was sketchy, at best, when presented to the actors.  If this is true then it could not have been left in better hands.  Add to all that an A-lister list Skippy (uncredited in this film, by the way, which is unbelievable), a stellar supporting cast and the glitz and glamour inherent in these classic films and this becomes a comedy for the ages.

Here may be a spoiler - As it turns out, the awful truth is that Jerry and Lucy cannot live without each other.  They certainly cannot live without Smitty.  And we cannot live without them.  The matter of Mr. Smith was for naught.

This write-up is my contribution to the Classic Movie Dogathon hosted by the fabulous Classic Film & TV Café.  This is my first ever “a-thon” so thanks to Rick for helping me get my paws wet.  Initially, I’d submitted three choices to write about.  The Awful Truth was my last.  Since the first two were taken, this was the loser’s choice.  But, as it turns out, herein lies a clear case where to the loser went the spoils – and the laughs.  The Awful Truth is a riot from beginning to end.

Before you go, I encourage you to take a look at the other entries in the Classic Movie Dogathon.  The schedule is available here.  It is a sure thing you’ll find an enjoyable read at every turn.  Reviews submitted by passionate cinephiles that know their movies and the canine stars that continue to fill us with joy and wonder.

In honor of Skippy and all the other animals who have brought all of us film fans so much joy through the years, here is the link to the North Shore Animal League America. They do amazing work rescuing animals and finding homes for them where they can be loved and give love.  Visit – volunteer – save a life.



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34 replies

  1. What an enjoyable review of a film I must admit, I haven’t seen in many MANY years. But your great reminder is enough for me. I’m adding the film to my queue. I must watch it again.

    Though I know Mr. Smith…uh, Skippy….uh, Asta, from THE THIN MAN movies, I hadn’t realized he’d starred in this one as well. Where have I been? So I learned something new.

    Thanks for the link to North Shore. I know about the great work they do.

  2. I really enjoyed this sweet post about people and the mistakes they make while a loving dog who brought them together will ultimately help keep them together. We could certainly learn a lot from these precious animals if we would only take the time to do so. I also was delighted to see your shout out to the North Shore Animal League and the wonderful work they do to rescue animals. Loved your blog!

  3. Aurora, your inventive opening paragraph was delightful (imagine the reaction of readers unaware that Mr. Smith was a pup!). It’s been far too long since I’ve seen THE AWFUL TRUTH and—being a Cary Grant fan—I need to rectify that. I love your description of it as “smart with hilarious dialogue delivered with razor-sharp clarity and speed, which often sounds improvised.” The piano duet between Cary and Mr. Smith is marvelous…though I can see why Irene’s character got a little upset. Like Toto and Yvette, I think your plug for the North Shore Animal League is wonderful.

    • Thanks so much, Rick!

      I love the piano duet and the scene where Mr. Smith uncovers the wrong hat so Jerry ends up with a hat far too large for his head. It’s a wonderful movie. Too many scenes to describe each. I will say that I ended up re-watching the nightclub scene several times. The one where Dixie Belle Lee sings the lovely ballad with sudden bursts of air blowing her flowing gown up. I cried laughing! The reactions of Cary and Irene are priceless. I could go on and on.

      Aurora

  4. You can’t ever go wrong with Cary Grant or Skippy for a Dogathon! Love them both and Eh, Dunne is pretty spectacular herself. Although I didn’t find The Awful Truth as funny as Bringing Up Baby, My Man Godfrey or other screwball comedies at the time it still remains a classic and that darn dog brings a smile even now seeing your photos.

    He does look so much like the littler terrier used in Bringing Up Baby. I wonder if he’s the same dog?

    I really enjoyed your review and the added trivia. I had no idea that this film was remade later for Wyman and Milland. Although I doubt I would be interested. You can’t top Grant and Dunne.

    A fun and informative entry for the Dogathon!
    Page

    • Page,

      Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. I laughed constantly throughout this movie. But I love the others you mention as well. Luckily we don’t have to choose between them. I have to put this one in the top wrung, though.

      Yes, George in Bringing Up Baby is also played by the versatile Skippy.

      Aurora

  5. Aurora, I certainly agree with Rick about your short opening paragraph being a perfect hook. For me too this is “the definitive screwball comedy.” You sure did it justice with your witty post. And you reminded us just how big a part Mr. Smith plays in the proceedings. With all the wonderful scenes in the film that are funny in their own right, the one of the custody hearing is still a standout. And you’re right on the mark about Grant and the wonderful Dunne being a perfect screen team. Their rapport and perfectly synchronized comedic timing are a treat to behold. Delightful post on a delightful movie.

    • Thank you, R.D. for your lovely comments.

      I considered not using Skippy’s picture on the home page to not spoil the hook. But then thought it IS a DOG-athon so he should remain the featured player. I’m glad my enjoyment of the film came through in the post. It’s a joy to watch.

      Aurora

  6. Hilarious movie, Aurora, and I’m glad you did this one. Your write-up is excellent, informative and fun to read. I loved your nod to Rick: “This is my first ever “a-thon” so thanks to Rick for helping me get my paws wet.” I love a good groaner! Wonderful addition to the Dogathon!

  7. Thanks for a great review of one of our favourite movies. Skippy was TOO cute!

  8. Aurora your blog was written to perfection. Your literary descriptions of Smitty were brilliant and it was not until the third paragraph and the picture next to it that I realized Smitty was a dog. I have never seen the movie but after reading your blog I would like to indulge in it one evening and I am sure it will be great. You really did excellent in describing Smitty in your contribution to the Classic Movie Dogathon and really painted the picture of not only how wonderful he was in this movie but the magnificence he had in others as well. Skippy should not have only been nominated for Best Actor but should have taken the award home. I really enjoyed the history you provided of both the movie and Skippy. You captured the meaning of Dogathon and gave us a wonderful blog, thank you very much. I look forward to reading your future blogs as well.

  9. Jon-Paul -

    Thank you for stopping in to look around and for your lovely comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. SO, my “hook” worked on you since you’ve never seen the movie. :-)

    This is a DEFINITE, classic must-see. Put it on your list!

    Aurora

  10. The Awful Truth is one of my all-time favorites. Whenever I am introducing someone to screwball comedy, it’s my go-to. Sure, Dunne and Grant are at top form, but it’s all about Mr. Smith! First of all, his name! That is the greatest joke right there! A very human name for a very human-acting pooch.

    It never fails to crack me up when he goes for Armand’s hat.

    You said that The Jerk was one of your first choices. I’ll be honest–I almost went with this one but changed my mind. You said that you were glad I covered The Jerk. Well, I’m glad you covered The Awful Truth. You did a much better job than I would’ve done.

    Excellent, Aurora.

  11. Aurora ~ may I begin by saying how nice it is to see your blog included in this canine themed blogathon. I’m sorry I missed your post yesterday, but it was certainly worth the wait. Although “The Awful Truth” might have been your third choice; the film is a perfect choice because Skippy (Mr. Smith) is a participant in the mayhem created by his people. I can’t think of another dog that deserves the title “canine of screwball” more than Skippy. Thanks for the reminder of the inspired chaos that is a screwball comedy, and for the need to care for our four-footed friends.

    • Thanks! So happy you visited and that you enjoyed the post. I’m very excited to have been so warmly received in my first “a-thon.” It’s a blast.

      Skippy remains, without a doubt, THE canine of screwball! Wish I’d included that line in the post!

      Aurora

  12. I loved the ever so serious opening to introduce this great screwball classic!

    Nice linking up to North Shore there, my parents three year old terror, yes I typed that right, suckered them into grabbing her with a sweetheart act from there.

    • Thanks, Cliff!

      Since I love this movie so much I knew I’d have to come up with something other than simply gushing about it. Hence, the pseudo-serious hook.

      LOL! Somehow, sometimes the terrors are loved most.

      Aurora

  13. I love this movie–one of my favorite Cary films (and I admit, that’s a long list, as I adore him, but still). I love the scene where Lucy keeps trying to hide that hat–such a smart pup! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this film!

    • Thanks, Brandie. Glad you enjoyed it.

      The hat scene is hysterical. Mr. Smith was determined and when, finally, Lucy is forced to give Jerry the hat – way too large for him – she tries to play it off as if his head had just gotten smaller. Too funny.

      Aurora

  14. What I loved most about this movie, is how the family beloved pet Lucy, managed to keep the fam together with all her cute antics… Pawsome post..

  15. Aurora, I must confess that I’ve only had the opportunity to see THE AWFUL TRUTH in bits and pieces when I’ve stumbled across it in the middle while channel-surfing TCM, and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to finally watch it from start to finish. Until then, your sparkling review has whet my appetite to pounce the next time I manage to catch it from the beginning! Your courtroom “broken home” intro was a witty and clever way to start the ball rolling. Glad to see that busy canine thespian Skippy in another charming, scene-stealing role after the THIN MAN movies, among others! Loved your fabulous and funny post!

    • Dorian,

      Thank you so much for your comments. Much appreciated! Skippy’s career was amazing. So many decades later and he’s still getting a star on OUR walk of fame.
      You know you HAVE TO watch this entirely. Just too funny.

      Aurora

  16. “The Awful Truth” is my favorite of all screwballs. Nothing tops Cary Grant and Irene Dunne (he paired wonderfully well with most leading ladies, but I do think he and Dunne were the height of sublime together) – PLUS Skippy.

    One of my favorite of Skippy’s scenes involves a “supervised visit” Jerry pays Lucy see Mr. Smith. I still laugh every time I watch Cary Grant sit down at the piano, bang out a loud tune, then turn to that adorable dog and call out, “take it, Smitty!” – and Skippy barks his heart out, right on cue.

    A really entertaining post on a still hilarious classic – and one of the great dog stars of all time. I suspect Moose, the Jack Russell Terrier who played Eddie on “Frasier,” must’ve screened all of Skippy’s films before he tested for the part…

    • Eve,

      I agree that ANYONE paired with Cary Grant just worked. He could do it all. But Dunne just had a little something that simply gelled perfectly. The ever-elusive chemistry where they didn’t have to speak to be funny in scenes together.

      Yes! Love the “take it Smitty!” scene and prior to that when Jerry grabe Smitty’s face and wonders if he’s being fed enough. Perfection!

      Am also loving the idea that Moose screened Skippy!

      Thanks for your comments.

      Aurora

Trackbacks

  1. Neil Postman, Irene Dunne and the Right Use of Entertainment | Dr. Michael A. Milton's Blog
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  3. Cary Grant’s greatest co-star, Irene Dunne | Once upon a screen...
  4. Cary Grant – Style Icon – waldina

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