Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage
by Stanley Cavell
Harvard University Press, 283 pp., $17.50
Irene Dunne, in the process of getting divorced from Cary Grant, is being courted by Ralph Bellamy. Bellamy ingenuously, amiably, boasts of having won several cups for dancing, and Dunne has a moment of naked regret for her old marriage. “We never won any cups,” she says. To Bellamy, and to people like him, this will sound like a confession of relative failure, but it is really a glancing, retrospective tribute. She and Grant, when together, did not compete against anyone, they just danced, a world of affection and amusement was theirs, and was enough.
The movie is The Awful Truth, directed by Leo McCarey, and the trouble between Dunne and Grant began when she surprised him in an outright lie (he claimed to have been in Florida when he was up to something in New York; she discovered this because he brought her some California oranges), and he caught her in a lame-looking truth (she was stranded for the night with her singing teacher when their car broke down). When she points out the asymmetry of their cases, remarking that “nothing is less logical than the truth,” he calls her a philosopher. She is. At the end of the film, with divorce minutes away from becoming final, she says to him, “Things are the same as they always were, only you’re the same too, so things will never be the same again.” Grant understands how desperate this diagnosis is, and insists that he is not the same anymore but quite different. “And as long as I’m different,” he says, “maybe things can be the same again, only a bit different.”
Dunne doesn’t say “Vive la différence,” as Spencer Tracy does in Adam’s Rib, but she gladly accepts Grant’s contrition, and the film staves off the divorce and gets the couple back into one bed. A Swiss clock, which has exhibited a tiny man and a tiny woman hopping out of their respective doorways and back again on the quarter hour, abandons engineering in honor of this resolution, and as midnight strikes, the figure of the man skips gleefully back not into his own doorway but after the woman into hers.
In Pursuits of Happiness, Stanley Cavell, a philosopher like Irene Dunne, and the author of an earlier, brilliant, vexing movie book called The World Viewed, describes the intricate dialogue quoted above as “taking a leaf from Plato’s Parmenides,” which is flying a bit high. But flying high is Cavell’s signature, and he has just and lofty things to say about this movie, which he sees as the crowning achievement of a Hollywood genre he calls the comedy of remarriage. Or rather, he sometimes sees it in this way. “On certain screenings I have felt The Awful Truth (1937) to be the best, or the deepest, of the comedies of remarriage.” The film is brittle, and our liking it depends, as Cavell says, on our liking Irene Dunne. But its brittleness is part …