Sunday, August 30, 2020

Don't Make a Scene: The Awful Truth

The Story: Cary Grant nearly quit. He even wrote a message to Columbia Studio chief Harry Cohn offering $5,000 to be taken off the picture. Irene Dunne was so unhappy the first few days of filming that she would run off-set for her frequent crying jags. Ralph Bellamy got messages from three different writers (including Dorothy Parker) that they wanted to meet to discuss writing his character. Nothing was used.

The Awful Truth started as a 1923 play, became a silent picture in 1925, and had been filmed again (with sound) in 1929. Through some studio and property consolidation, it ended up at Columbia and a script produced and offered to director Tay Garnett who turned it down, saying that the script "was about as funny as a seven year itch in an iron lung." Leo McCarey, a veteran of Laurel and Hardy movies and who'd directed the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, looked over the script, declared "I've seen worse," and took the job because he needed the work.

McCarey worked with his collaborators on Make Way for Tomorrow, Viña Delmar and her husband Eugene, to break the play down to component parts and threw everything else away. Irene Dunne was hired, despite her lack of comedic experience—her previous film had comedy and got her an Oscar nomination—and McCarey thought such a straight-laced actress would be hilarious as a comic foil. Cary Grant was hired soon after, and Ralph Bellamy, a contract player for Columbia, soon after that, but Bellamy wasn't told anything about his character.

The actors arrived on-set to find no script. McCarey just wanted to talk and trade stories. The only footage shot was of Dunne haltingly playing piano while Bellamy (who couldn't sing) belted out "Home on the Range." McCarey filmed it, and the two were horrified to see it end up in the picture. Grant, who'd just come from the more rigid, business-like atmosphere of Paramount Studios, was horrified that there was no set script and that he was being encouraged to improvise with the camera rolling. The first five days of the intended filming, Grant did everything he could—including suggesting trading parts with Bellamy—to get out of it.

But, something about it "clicked." Grant began to get comfortable with, and even began to favor, the McCarey ad-libbing style, suggesting bits of business, and using his own earlier frustrations during the film to inspire his character's moments of confusion. Most of the film was improvised the day of filming. McCarey and his actors were generous with each other, making fun of themselves and leaving any pretensions behind. Long takes were filmed that were only interrupted when the actors cracked each other up. Dunne came to be sorry to see each day's filming end, and the film came in under schedule and under budget. McCarey won the Oscar for Best Director for this film—he groused that he should have won it for Make Way for Tomorrow—and Bellamy and Dunne were nominated for their performances, as was, ironically, Delmar for the script, little of which made it to the screen.

What is lovely about this scene is that, although the Warriners are making fun of the "rube" from Oklahoma, they're also so dumb they don't recognize their own false pride in creating the subterfuges over misunderstandings and creating more damage over what is, basically, nothing. Except honest truth. The "awful truth" of the title is that the Warriners love each other...they just don't want to admit it. Fools.

The Set-Up: High Society New Jersey-ites Lucy and Jerry Warriner (Irene Dunne, Cary Grant) suspect each other of having affairs, which—naturally—starts to put a strain on their (up to now) happy marriage. Divorce proceedings begin and the two begin trying to one-up each other with trumped-up flings and attempts to sabotage them. Here, Lucy has brought her new "beau" (Ralph Bellamy) to Jerry's club to meet his new girl, a performer there. 

LUCY WARRINER: She seems like a nice girl...
JERRY WARRINER: Ah, yes, indeed.
JERRY: But enough about Dixie Belle for the moment, let's talk about yourselves...
JERRY: Ah, so you're going to live in Oklahoma, eh, Lucy? 
JERRY: How I envy you. 
JERRY: Ever since I was a small boy that name has been... 
JERRY: ...filled with magic for me: 
JERRY: Oklahoma!
DANIEL LEESON: (unaware of the sarcasm) We're going to live right in Oklahoma City.
JERRY: Not Oklahoma City itself?! 
Leeson nods.
JERRY: Lucy, you lucky girl. 
JERRY: No more running around the nightspots, no more prowling around in New York shops. 
JERRY: I shall think of you every time a new show opens and say to myself, "She's well out of it."
DANIEL: New York's all right for a visit, but...
DANIEL and JERRY: (together) ...I wouldn't want to live here.
LUCY: I know I'll enjoy Oklahoma City.
JERRY: But of course
JERRY: And if it should get dull, you can always go over to Tulsa for the weekend.
JERRY: I think a big change like that does one good, don't you?
DANIEL: Well, that's right. 
DANIEL: Say, I know this isn't quite the place, but Lucy tells me you two own a coal mine.
JERRY: What about it?
LUCY: Oh, yes. Uh, Mr. Leeson thought that maybe he'd like to buy your interest. 
LUCY: That is, if the price is right. I, I was telling Mr. Leeson... 
LUCY: I mean Daniel,
Daniel chuckles. 
LUCY: ...about how badly we were doing and he thought that maybe he could do better with it.
JERRY: I suppose you told him there wasn't any coal in it, too.
DANIEL: Well, if you're interested, you might bring me around the data tomorrow. 
DANIEL: I'm very lucky...
DANIEL: You know what they call me back home?
LUCY: (shaking her head discouragingly) Daniel...
JERRY: I can guess....

The Awful Truth

Words by Viña Delmar (and Sidney Buchman) and quite a few others

Pictures by Joseph Walker and Leo McCarey

The Awful Truth is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and The Criterion Collection.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

42: In Memoriam

Written at the time of the film's release. Chadwick Boseman has gone on to play James Brown in Get On Up and "The Black Panther" in Captain America: Civil War.

Chadwick Boseman died of cancer on Friday at the too-young age of 43. He was great.

Changing the Face of the American Game
The Saint of Swat

One of the great "unmade" movies is the story of Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the baseball player who broke the color barrier in the quintessential American game.

Oh, it has been made before: Robinson, himself, older and showing the effects of the strain the game and his task had put on him, starred in a B-movie version, The Jackie Robinson Story, in 1950; Ken Burns' definitive documentary Baseball made his story the lynch-pin of the parallel stories of The Game and race relations in America in the 20th Century (and will probably always be the best telling of what happened).*

But Robinson's story has been kicking the turf of home plate for a couple of decades lately—Spike Lee has been working tirelessly to make a film of his story for that long, and I've always wanted to see his version of it, as his directorial voice would absolutely put a distinctively personal philosophical spin on the heroics of it.  A Spike Lee "joint" might also provide some angry tension that was part and parcel of the Jackie Robinson Story, but could never be expressed, lest the long-delayed abolition of sanctioned (but unspoken) segregation of baseball fail in a double-play of racism posing as informed sports commentary (which still goes on today for some reason).

Brian Helgeland's film about Robinson, 42 (the number Robinson wore for the Dodgers and the only number permanently retired in the MLB), doesn't have the inflamed spirit that Lee might have imposed, and is content to stick to the facts, which are enough as the events were charged with over-laying race issues, prejudice posing as business politics, and the uneasy first faltering post-war steps to civil rights legislation.

Make no mistake. It was a super-human task to be the first black man in an all-white league. He was a fine hitter, a better runner, and a brilliant strategist who would earn runs without connecting bat to ball, merely by "freaking out" pitchers by stealing bases. Plus, he had a defiant spirit that would not let prejudice stand. He wouldn't "just take it." But, the "handshake" part of his signing with the Dodgers was that he would have to "take it," whatever was thrown his way, be they death-threats, or murderous pitches. He promised his manager that he would not fight back, show restraint, and be the model player. 

Oh. The bottom line was that he had to perform, as well.

Robinson and Rickey on the day he signed with the Dodgers
Robinson knew the opportunity that his role would provide, not only for him but also for other "Negro players." He was described as "a race man," passionate about the lot of African-Americans in a country with Jim Crow laws in place, segregated bathrooms, water faucets and diners, and prejudices not so public under the guise of "tolerance," that actually seemed to take pride in a sentiment like "separate but equal." And he shouldered it, showing the humility and great generosity of his spirit, always saying the "breaking of the color barrier" was not his story but Branch Rickey's.
But, as dramatized in the film, it was also the story of everyone in the Dodgers organization, especially the players, initially reluctant to allow Robinson in, and upon seeing the rough treatment he was getting from fans, other teams, and previously friendly hotels and restaurants, becoming his ally, team-mate, friend, and first line of defense. Robinson's imposed tolerance in the face of hate, naked or subtle, inspired empathy with his fellows, and his play raised their game, making all of them better players, and in the words of Dodger announcer Red Barber "better men."
Performances are uniformly excellent. Harrison Ford is top-lined as Rickey, and Ford chews into the role the way John Wayne jawed Rooster Cogburn, growling and over-playing just a little bit to provide "character," Christopher Meloni of "Law and Order: SVU" does a fine job playing Dodgers coach Leo Durocher, soon replaced by "Barney Miller"'s Max Gail as Burt Shotton, Lucas Black plays Pee Wee Reese and Ryan Merriman plays Dixie Walker, and Nicole Beharie plays the devoted Rachel Robinson with a bracing mixture of grace and spine. Alan Tudyk surprises with a particularly unsympathetic portrait of Philadelphia coach Ben Chapman, whose taunts on-field But special praise has to be given to Chadwick Boseman's performance as Robinson, which he has down cold. There's enough footage of his play to copy, but what he nails is Robinson's expression, the enigmatic not-a-smile, and the wary eyes and darkened brow of the already burned and suspicious player, a bit of a caged lion not allowed to roar.
It's a good tribute to the man, if only missing a little bit of the fire that must have burned in the man to accomplish what he needed to, and that needed to be internalized amid so much pressure. He (with Rickey's patronage) turned the puerile accomplishments of a kid's game (the wins, the records) into something far greater for humankind (American division). He was the slugger who couldn't hit back, who turned the other cheek and turned America around. Babe Ruth was baseball's "sultan of swat."  

Robinson is its saint.

As dramatized in the film, Robinson posing with Phillies coach Ben Chapman who was criticized for shouting racial slurs at the player during a game. This photo op was Chapman's way of trying to fend off charges of "unsportsmanlike conduct." He was fired by Philadelphia in 1948. Looking at the smile on Robinson, casual and a bit cocky, "helping out" the guy by posing with him, always makes me smile.

* Just this year, Burns also produced a film dedicated solely to Robinson.