The 1937 Movie More Cynical About Marriage Than ‘Gone Girl’

By  · Published on October 20th, 2014

Columbia Pictures

Gone Girl is a cynical movie. No doubt. It features two sociopaths working out their deeply troubled marital issues in the public eye with just the right amount of bloodshed. Yet in more than a few ways, it could be an unofficial remake of The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey’s 1937 screwball comedy where two assholes realize that they want to stay married.

The movie opens with Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant, naturally) lying to his wife about a trip to Florida (complete with sunlamp sessions at the gym and fake letters). When his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) returns home later than expected, and with her debonair singing instructor in tow, Jerry can’t believe her story of a broken down vehicle. He’s furious. She finds out he was lying about visiting the Sunshine State, and mutual divorce proceedings commence. They both want to keep the dog.

The rest of the film involves Lucy’s engagement to the folksy Dan (Ralph Bellamy, naturally), more lies, insinuations of social impropriety, Jerry’s engagement to the high class Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont), the intentional destruction of relationships and an automobile, and a metric ton of snide conversations spat between Jerry and Lucy’s smiling faces.

The comparisons to Gone Girl are all surface level, to be sure, but I’m not letting that stop me here. There’s a married couple who mistrust each other deeply, a dramatic separation, a move from NYC to the middle of the country (Oklahoma in The Awful Truth, Missouri in Gone Girl), and a calculated and complex scheme to win a husband back, but the soap opera elements of Gone Girl propel it beyond the intimate simplicity of Awful Truth.

That’s also what makes the 1937 film more insidious. Both films play like anarchy on a short leash, but David Fincher’s film slashes the throat of any sense of everyman reflection that we may have picked up on in the first act. We can watch it and think, “There is a truly fucked up couple. Good thing we’re not them,” but The Awful Truth doesn’t offer as much cover. Lucy and Jerry look pretty much like we do, only wittier and faster on their feet.

(The caveat being that they’re both upper middle class white people because, surprise, it’s a 1930s film starring Cary Grant. You could recreate everything about it in almost any setting, though. Depression Era filmmakers were just particularly obsessed with luxuriating in tuxedos. That caveat extends to Gone Girl, too. We still like watching wealthy characters here in 2014.)

The ultimate point? Nick and Amy Dunne are clearly insane, clawing-eyed desperate for nationalized levels of attention. Jerry and Lucy Warriner have a dog and go on double dates together while waiting for their divorce to finalize. Amy fakes her death and killed a lover to end up back in Nick’s spotlit, apologetic arms. Lucy pretends to be Jerry’s sister and acts like a dancing idiot at a dinner party. If both movies are about the lengths we’ll go to once we remember we love our spouses, Gone Girl is a rattlesnake with an outlier’s warning while The Awful Truth is a trained wire fox terrier we happily let into our homes.

But The Awful Truth treats marriage with smug repudiation, too, and earns bonus points for being subversive. Since everything is a matter of degrees, any of us could be Jerry and Lucy Warriner, offering the film an uncomfortably universal message that Gone Girl can’t possibly deliver.

20th Century Fox

Even though Jerry foolishly believes his wife is lying early on just because he is, she proves herself to be a cunning liar later – a woman who summarily breaks her new man’s heart without much ado because Jerry is just too damned charming, and who molds one of Jerry’s lies into a character bit that sees her masquerading as his sister in a scorched earth attempt to crush his chances with a beautiful heiress he’s fallen for.

She grows into her corrupt behavior, but Jerry is a plain asshole’s asshole the entire movie, wearing his envy and inferiority on his sleeve but disguising them with a handsome sport coat. They are both horrible to other people, horrible to each other, and they end up right where they belong: together.

In that sense there’s a bit of hopefulness to their reconciliation which might have read differently during an age with a 19% divorce rate. There was never a hint of infidelity (because The Hays Code wouldn’t allow it), but it’s nice to see these two scheming douchebags get back together because it means they aren’t out there individually infecting the rest of the dating pool. Dan and Barbara get out while the getting’s good, nursing only minor wounds. (Maybe in another movie, Bellamy’s genuine Sooner and Lamont’s steely society girl find each other.)

On the other hand, a lot of the so-called Comedy of Remarriage movies could be considered cynical or flippant when it comes to institution of marriage itself. They’re designed not to take anything seriously, to put their characters in heightened situations where they have to take drunken swims with Jimmy Stewart (The Philadelphia Story) or be hilariously arrested for bigamy (My Favorite Wife). Like modern rom-coms (which could be easily accused of cynicism, too), they hinge on characters who won’t tell the truth even when it will fix absolutely every problem they have with almost zero fall out.

His Girl Friday (again, with Grant) is another example where a new beau (again, Bellamy) gets the short end of the stick from a pair of terrible people, but the focus of that film is on getting a major news story – and embattled ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell) remembering her love and talent for cutthroat journalism.

The Awful Truth, with all its laughs, is as pessimistic about marriage as His Girl Friday (and Gone Girl) is about mass media.

Like I mentioned before, there’s an obviousness to Gone Girl as a dark comedy that requires you knock before visiting it. The Awful Truth is subversive in its innocence, and in its ending. It seems like Grant has learned a lesson and evolved just as Dunne (who owns the final half hour of the movie) has “evolved” to become more like him.

But he hasn’t. She has. And in fact, the pair have intensified their dishonesty. Grant only treasures his wife once he sees her with another man, something she recognizes while using Dan as a prop. After that blows up, he only remembers he loves her (for a third, potentially final time) after she ruins his engagement with a sociopathic act, culminating in her sending a car into a ravine while acting drunk for the police.

The movie is not really about learning or growing (even though that’s how it’s presented), it’s about remembering that you love the excitement that the asshole gave you. It’s about returning to that addiction. It’s about a moment of clarity melting in the face of baiting conversations and the joy of a new hunt with new romantic casualties. It’s about being right, being clever, and winning.

We’re left assuming that they’ll rip up their divorce papers over breakfast… and file new ones before too long.

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