Close Up #2: Carole Lombard’s fabulist in True Confession (1937)
Screwball comedy, like film noir, usually hinges upon the male point of view. For a dozen slinky-gown inscrutables, an intermittent standout such as Barbara Stanwyck, as the downright unglamorous Mae Doyle in Clash by Night (’52), anchors a picture away from the hardboiled gumshoe, angry man or fella in a frame up. In screwball, the runaway heiress, soon-to- be-ex- wife, aspiring entertainer, cardsharp or scam artist routinely plays second fiddle to the one sporting brilliantined hair. Not so for True Confession (’37), a definite woman’s picture with a point of view firmly centred on the leading lady, directed by Wesley Ruggles, and starring Carole Lombard as Helen Bartlett.
A couple of subversive points make this film a gold standard woman’s picture. Next to Lombard, men appear dull, unimaginative and obtuse. They have no ability to dream up or interpret a scenario. Men exist as uninspired literalists who take everything at face value. When the repo man McDougall (played by Tom Dugan) shows up to remove the typewriter due to missed payment, she halts the man in his tracks with an outrageous tale about her mentally unstable husband who considers the machine as replacement for their dead baby. Lombard’s fiction convinces the man that MacMurray will snap and commit murder if he attempts to walk off with the ‘baby’. The typewriter stays when Fred MacMurray’s broad shoulders and 6ft 3in frame appear.
Women are natural storytellers the film argues, since those narrative gifts develop through everyday hassles from a lack of authority and complications that arise from living in a man’s world. When Lombard’s rich boss (a man who offered to pay her $50 a week for three hours a day of ‘secretarial’ duty) meets a grisly end, cops arrive and immediately peg Lombard and Merkel as the guilty party, just for being at the crime scene. Edgar Kennedy (as police officer Darsey) treats the women as though they were naughty children from the start. During the interrogation scene, he tries to force a confession from Lombard, and in the process, sweat pours down his face as if he were the guilty party. Each time he offers a motive for why she might have decided to kill her boss, Lombard revises the story so that it reads better, so that it contains a better dramatic arc, internal continuity and characterisation. As a dim-witted man with a badge, he doesn’t recognise imagination at work. She rattles off alternative plots before he discovers she’s spinning one yarn after another.
Men in True Confession struggle not only with how to put together a story, but also with simple words. The ballistic expert (Byron Foulger) desperately grabs for the right idiom like it’s a noose around his neck. He chokes between colloquial and professional diction:
‘I got the call about 10 o’clock Wednesday morning from the homicide bureau. I found the defendant, I mean, er, the deceased, laying, er, lying face down on the floor, I mean the rug. So I examined the uh, rug, or, er, uh, the body, and found that death was caused by two bullets, fired into his range, I mean, two bullets fired at close range into his lead, er, head’.
Viewers take delight in so-called expert testimony from a man who stumbles over every other word in a sentence. If a man frets over basic nouns, he earns little credibility among a jury. When a man who has a way with words does turn up, such as the loquacious tippler John Barrymore plays, he interprets the plot all wrong by predicting an electric-chair climax. Barrymore’s eloquence fails to even grant an ability to cadge drinks from a bartender.
As the straight man spouse, MacMurray appears pathologically gullible. He knows that his wife tends to fabricate stories until any thread of truth has been lost, yet he remains unable to detect tell-tale signs of falsehood. How could he miss the tongue-in- cheek ‘tell’ Lombard deploys when she’s about to unleash a whopper? Lombard’s tongue-in- cheek business might have proven an utter debacle of vaudevillian mugging had many other actresses tried it, but Lombard’s masterclass screwball delivery mutes it to a blinking moment. Once we observe the poke of her tongue, we know Lombard’s busy concocting an outlandish chestnut.
The friendship between Carole Lombard and Una Merkel (as Daisy McClure) rates as one of the best onscreen. Una knows and understands her friend in a way that her husband doesn’t. She’s the only one in the picture who recognises Lombard’s big fat lies and behaves appropriately. Merkel’s golden reaction shots offer a proxy for Lombard’s real audience. Perhaps it’s because they are sisters of the sass mouth: it takes one to know one.
In the end, True Confession presents Lombard’s exoneration and success as an author as true justice. Catapulted to fame and fortune, Lombard’s character harmonises the business of being a woman with profitable enterprise. Marriage to a man with an impoverished fantasy life, one who claims to only defend the innocent in court, requires brazen moxie on a wife’s part. Lombard’s narrative facility keeps her several steps ahead of tedious rules and the narrow scope of patriarchy. She’s rewarded for her creativity and cheekiness in a proper woman’s picture dénouement.
A final note: Fred MacMurray’s moustache deserves a moment of appreciation. He must have grown it especially for True Confession, because the only photographs featuring his comely mouth brow appear as stills or promotional shots for his fourth and final production with Lombard. MacMurray sports a hybrid variation of the holy trinity of 1930s moustaches: thicker than William Powell’s and Clark Gable’s, but thinner than Robert Donat’s. MacMurray wears it to great advantage as a swoon-worthy character, which punctuates the adoring looks he beams towards Lombard, even when he wants to wring her neck for being a fib-prone scamp.