In 1934, the Hays Code was established as a response to the call for Hollywood to self-censor their films. After the Code was created, films needed a certificate from the Hays office before they could be exhibited. Among other things, the Code states, “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.” The comedy of remarriage, a sub-genre of the screwball comedy, emerged during the 1930s as a result of the Hays Code. Leo McCarey’s 1937 film, The Awful Truth is a prime example of the sub-genre and is a product of the enforcement of the Code because of its inevitable conclusion in which the married couple reconciles.
Hollywood films tend to begin in a balanced state of equilibrium until a form of disruption is introduced. However, order is eventually restored in the end. In the comedy of remarriage, that disruptive force causes the married couple to separate, or grow apart before they reconcile their differences in the end. Due to the Hays Code, the re-coupling of the husband and wife is inevitable and one cannot expect any other outcome. Without the introduction of the Hays Code, the comedy of remarriage may never have existed because the filmmakers would have been able to explore other outcomes that did not involve remarriage. Films would have been more sexually explicit and would not of had the comedic shenanigans that these comedies employ to hide material that may be deemed sexually perverse.
The Hays Code dictates that adultery “must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.” Although a necessary narrative device, the subject of adultery is treated rather ambiguously in The Awful Truth. Even though Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry’s (Cary Grant) faithfulness to each other is questioned, McCarey never makes certain that either of them cheated on one another thus, avoiding complaints from the censors. An example of this complex ambiguity is the scene in which Lucy returns home with Armand (Alexander D’Arcy). In a conversation between Lucy, Armand, and the suspicious Jerry, Lucy says to Armand, “No one could ever accuse you of being a great lover.” This line suggests that Lucy is not attracted to Armand; conversely, the line implies that Lucy has been romantically involved with him and was not impressed (Greene 351-352). Due to the comedic nature of the film, McCarey is able to get away with more than other filmmakers at the time.
In her essay on The Awful Truth, Jane M. Greene states that the film “explicitly rejects sanctimonious attitudes toward marriage and divorce (352). An example of this assertion is the scene in which Lucy calls her lawyer, who tries to convince her to reconsider. He tells her that marriage is a beautiful thing while periodically stopping to hush his wife who is pestering him to get off the phone. Other examples include the scene in which Jerry and Lucy appear in court and argue over custody of their dog, Mr. Smith and the scene in which Jerry explains to Dan (Ralph Bellamy) and his mother (Esther Dale) that Lucy never caused him any unhappiness while crossing his fingers behind his back. McCarey seems to satirize the sanctity of marriage. In an early scene, Jerry says, “Marriage is based on faith. When that’s gone, everything’s gone.” This triggers Jerry and Lucy’s separation. McCarey makes no effort to show the reasons for the restoration of Jerry’s faith in Lucy at the end except his sexual attraction to her.
The Hays Code forbade films to present suggestive dancing. The Awful Truth contains two scenes with dancing that may be deemed suggestive. In the first scene, Jerry’s new girlfriend, Dixie (Joyce Compton) performs her number, “My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind”. Air blows from beneath Dixie and blows her skirt higher and higher, revealing too much skin for the Hays Code. However, the comedic nature of the scene must have caused the censors to overlook its suggestiveness. The second scene is much more suggestive. Lucy, dressed up as Jerry’s crude lower class sister, performs the same number for Jerry, Barbara (Molly Lamont), and her snobbish family in a striptease.
The Hays Code demanded, “The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.” The Awful Truth is full of sexual tension and innuendos especially the ending, in which a door with a broken latch is the only thing that separates Jerry and Lucy. The Hays Code prevented McCarey from presenting any overtly sexual content in the scene but there is no denying that the final moments are full of sexual energy, which radiates off of Lucy. In one of the film’s cleverest attempts to dodge the censors, the film repeatedly shows close-ups of a clock on which miniature figurines emerge from adjacent doorways. In the final image, the figurines unite and go into the same doorway, signaling the sexual reconciliation of Jerry and Lucy. Alfred Hitchcock would use a similar device in his 1959 film, North By Northwest. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) embrace and kiss each other followed by the final shot in which the phallic train penetrates the tunnel.
In conclusion, the structure of the comedy of remarriage, in which the couple separates before reconciling their differences in the end, is indicative of the Hays Code of the 1930s. If the couple did not get back together in the end, then the film would not be endorsing the purity of marriage and therefore, would not satisfy the Code. Therefore, without the introduction of the Code in 1934, the comedy of remarriage would not have emerged as a subgenre of the screwball comedy and The Awful Truth as its most flawless example.
Cavell, Stanley. “The Same and Different: The Awful Truth”. Pursuits of Happiness, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Greene, Jane M. “The Road to Reno: The Awful Truth and the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage”. Film History. Vol. 13, pp. 337-358.
The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code). ArtsReformation.com