Do yourself a favor: watch The Awful Truth on TCM, Friday morning, at 9:15. Don’t even TiVo it. Call in sick. Stay home. All about an unfaithful couple who divorces and then finally falls in love, it’s the real marvel of the ‘30s screwballs, more human and less ridiculous than Bringing Up Baby, as brawling and romantic as It Happened One Night, funnier even than His Girl Friday, though not as wild and fast. We could blow a couple of, maybe ten thousand, words recounting some of the best jokes: what happens when Irene Dunne pretends to be Cary Grant’s slutty, sublimely stupid sister instead of his jealous ex-wife; or the duet Grant does with their joint-custody fox terrier, Mr. Smith.
Instead let’s praise Ralph Bellamy, who has the misfortune in The Awful Truth, as he does in His Girl Friday, of competing with Cary Grant for a lady’s affections. Bellamy is as tall as Grant but in every other way a photonegative: blond, not dark; open, not Mata-Hari veiled; honest and hopeful, not conniving and cunning and cynical. He’s got a little bit of a Herman Munster face, and here, playing an Oklahoma oil man, his hammy broad accent makes him sound like he’s always singing “Home on the Range.” When Irene Dunne finally consents to kiss him, barely a peck, he wraps her up in a bear hug and cries, “I’m so happy I could eat three steaks!” The man composes poetry to his “prairie flower” and minds his Maw. But Pauline Kael once wrote: “The word ‘square’ wasn’t yet in slang use, but that’s the part Bellamy played–the man who didn’t get the joke. Obliging and available, always around when you didn’t want him (there was really no time when you did), he was the man to be jilted.”
This is ungenerous, and only half-true. In modern romantic comedies, whoever else our hero or heroine dates has to be invalidated before the third act, made villainous or deathly dull, rendered an utterly unacceptable choice. Think of You’ve Got Mail, where Meg Ryan is stuck at first with Greg Kinnear, a precious preening twat of a columnist for The Observer (ha!). Tom Hanks may be the superstore mogul who crushed her little shop around the corner–but at least he’s not that pretentious dickface. This is every movie from Sleepless in Seattle to There’s Something About Mary to The 40 Year Old Virgin: the protagonists fall in love partly because everybody else they meet, screw, are engaged to turns out to be sleazy or sappy or just sort of too weird.
But in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, Ralph Bellamy is the only decent guy at the dance; he is the straight man in the most valorous sense and so stays sane and kind while our couple engages in a foreplay of trying to out-wretched one another. If he ever actually moved Irene Dunne back home to Oklahoma or convinced Rosalind Russell to board that train up to Albany, those women would abuse him like unruly prisoners acting out against the warden. He’d be loving and they’d be unbearable. So you root for Cary Grant and Irene Dunne to get over themselves and get back together. Of course. But you also root for Ralph Bellamy to lose her heart and get free of these maniacs. You pray for his rescue, like he’s a kid stuck at the bottom of a well. Getting jilted is the best thing that’s ever going to happen to him.