The truth, the whole truth, and nothing like the truth

Why did it take us so long to watch TRUE CONFESSION? Maybe, being a part-time auteurist, I let it sink down the viewing pile on account of director Wesley Ruggles not being a Big Name, but he’s talented, certainly in terms of creating a comic rhythm and marshalling marvelous performances. Screenwriter Claude Binyon was involved in numerous W.C. Fields films, which helps explain the shaggy dog feeling we get.

Carole Lombard is a pathological liar married to a painfully honest lawyer, Fred MacMurray. Who keeps believing her, despite her having the world’s greatest poker tell (her tongue thrusts compulsively into her cheek as her eyes open wide with sudden inspiration). And despite the fact that he pretty much always finds out she’s lied. How long have they been married? What attracted them? They’re a bit like Burgess Meredith and Mrs. Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. The only thing they have in common is complete opposition.

Of course, we’re meant to recognise that MacMurray’s refusal to defend guilty clients (like Herbert Marshall’s in THE GOOD FAIRY) is madness, idiocy, worse than Lombard’s mythomania. It’s part of the subversive nature of screwball that the hero’s goal is usually misguided, like Joel McCrea’s terrible invention in THE PALM BEACH STORY or his terrible film in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or, most awful of all, Dick Powell’s coffee slogan in CHRISTMAS IN JULY. So we’re kind of rooting for the hero to succeed at something that deserves to fail.

Lombard ends up a murder suspect due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control. The detective at the scene, by some cruel cinematic fate, is Edgar Kennedy, the very worst possible person to have to deal with Lombard. No man was more prone to exasperation. Within seconds of meeting her he’s resorting to trademark gestures, wiping the sweat of his bald head with his pudgy hand or slapping it into his face and holding it there as if trying to shut out the mad, bad world and the mad, bad woman. At the crime scene, he’s apoplectic, and even Carole’s friend, Una Merkel, the one sane person in the film, is driving him crazy, because she’s trying to make him recognize reality. And reality is the craziest thing of all.

At the station house, Lombard drives him crazier still, as they run through various scenarios which might explain why she killed this guy. He’s seriously proposing explanations, but really he’s just trying to find something they can agree to so that the wheels of justice can roll on. She’s just trying out scenarios — she’s an unpublished author (but Merkel says nobody can believe any of her stories because the characters are all crazy). Finally, they hit on a simultaneous confession/defence which can see her walk free if the trial goes well — she was defending her honour. Carole likes this one just as Roxie Hart does.

Now Fred re-enters and persuades Carole that a guilty plea is the only way out of this. He’s waiting to be convinced it’s the truth, so she obligingly confirms it. Now this innocent woman is on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, to which she’s confessed. And presumably the real killer is still at large.

When we see Edgar Kennedy again, at the trial, the poor man is in shreds. Having to go through his encounters with Carole again in the witness box is bringing it all back. It’s like he has post-traumatic stress just from conversing with her. Being in a screwball comedy is a never-ending nightmare to him.

We also get, for sheer gratuitous pleasure, the testimony of the coroner (Irving Bacon), who can’t seem to sort out his words. “I entered and saw the defendant… I mean the deceased, lying on the floor… I mean the rug. I examined the rug… I mean the deceased, and found two bullet wounds in the leg… I mean the head…” And Porter Hall (a Sturges favourite) as the prosecutor, who grips the bar of the jury box and bobs up and down in a frenzy when reaching one of his many climaxes.

There’s also John Barrymore. But at this point we don’t even know why. He keeps turning up, arguing with his bartender (Lynne Overman, one of a number of players with delightfully cracked voices, Merkel being another) or taunting Lombard in her cell, but his purpose in the film remains mysterious until the end. Barrymore was enjoying a new career in screwball (TWENTIETH CENTURY, MIDNIGHT) and his final decline comes in conjunction with that genre’s fade-out in the forties. We can also say that in the screwballs, Barrymore is in command of the joke, though it’s a tough struggle, and in PLAYMATES (1941) the joke is on him (picture it squatting on his chest as he expires, like the imp in Fuselli’s nightmare). He’s playing a disreputable drunk in this one, and there’s certainly an uncomfortable lack of distance between actor and role — stubble further softens the disintegrating Great Profile, a too-tight white jacket makes a gunnysack of his torso — but the eccentricities are so designed, we know there’s still a working mind organising all this. The high-pitched giggle, the rising inflection on the mantra “She’ll fry,” the echoes of Mr. Hyde in the glances to the side and the wafting claws…

This all got Fiona & I feeling like we’d missed out on some good screwballs. So welcome to Screwball Week on Shadowplay — I’ll be interrupting it on Monday to bring you the latest installment of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, but otherwise, at least seven days in a world of drag, madness, irresponsibility, corruption and romance.

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5 Responses to “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing like the truth”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    The frustration with this one is that it throws away the most interesting idea in the whole script: That being proven innocent of murder could ruin her successful new life as a respected citizen.

    To take one direction: What if she pulled off the near-perfect murder of Barrymore’s character, utilizing everything she was accused of by the police? She could certainly rationalize it, what with him being the actual killer of the man she was accused of killing. And since she was forgiven for killing a man she didn’t kill, wouldn’t she have one coming?

    What if her husband had to prove her innocence? What if he knew the truth this time?

    Instead, after a few superfluous scenes with the bartender (shot and inserted late to reassure us Lombard really is innocent? Or perhaps to get Barrymore on camera a little earlier?), Barrymore confronts the couple and is quickly talked out of blackmail, leaving a short and not quite satisfying wrap-up (MacMurray feeling betrayed because his wife ISN’T a murderer — another decent idea thrown away).

    There are certainly similarly themed films out there: Prim authors who must fake experience of their lurid subjects; martyrs who confess to crimes they think their beloveds committed; and of course people finding themselves celebrated for what they didn’t (and/or shouldn’t) have done. But being threatened by proof of innocence? Surprised nobody seems have grabbed it.

  2. That does sound promising. And the last act of this one is indeed the weak spot — but not weak enough to spoil my overall enjoyment.

    Other great screwballs fakes include Lombard again in Nothing Sacred, Colbert in Midnight, and The Moon’s our Home, in which Fonda and Sullivan fall in love when BOTH are traveling under false colours (though in this case they’re celebrities pretending not to be).

  3. revelator60 Says:

    I knew you’d like this one! Barrymore started out onstage as a light comedian and farceur, so in a way he was returning to his roots. Playmates was an awful last film and his performance was tired (aside from his Hamlet recitation), but he’s wonderful in Midnight and The Great Man Votes (not screwball, but a comedy). I’ve also heard good things about Hold That Co-ed and World Premiere but haven’t got along to them yet.

  4. Me neither. Bookmarked. Screwball seems a nice genre for Barrymore’s comic output. Playmates is obviously beneath his dignity, but a lot of screwball deals with the redemptive power of abandoning your dignity and having fun and making yourself ridiculous, and I suspect Barrymore preferred that to all those romantic leading roles.

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