TRUE CONFESSION (Wesley Ruggles, 1937)

Opposites attract; and, sometimes, they are at least very nearly necessary for one another. The same year as Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, one of Hollywood’s shrewdest marital comedies, came another notable one that’s more absurdist and almost as hilarious: True Confession, written by Claude Binyon, from the French play My Crime by Georges Berr and Louis Verneuil, and directed by Wesley Ruggles. It is McCarey’s far more brilliant (and Oscar-winning) direction that accounts for the considerable superiority of his film; but a temperamental and philosophical chasm between partners, such as Ruggles details, more often stresses a marriage than does suspected infidelity, and indeed the latter, when it occurs, is often a mere symptom of the former, and either involves the ubiquitous issue of trust. Both films together would make a superlative comical double bill.
     Jerry Warriner tells a lie in The Awful Truth the exposure of which sets the plot, and the Warriners’ marital discord, in motion; in True Confession, Helen Bartlett (Carole Lombard, dazzlingly complex, screamingly funny—altogether, it is her best comedy performance) tells one lie after another, one of which is her confession to a capital murder that she did not commit. Reviewers thus describe Helen as a “pathological,“ “compulsive” or “congenital liar.” But where they see the irony of Helen’s tendency to lie alongside lawyer-husband Ken’s insistence on truthfulness above all else (Ken views perjury as a worse crime than murder), I see a causal relationship, with Ken’s infuriating truth-fetichism finding some at least abstract balance in wife Helen’s lies, lies and more and riskier lies. It is perhaps at least the case that the opposite nature of their outlook and behavior is partly what has drawn this couple together.
     Befitting the Depression, the Bartletts have a problem that McCarey’s Warriners do not: They are poor. Ken’s dogged honesty requires that he reject guilty clients, but those are the kind of clients that his honesty attracts. Thus unable to support himself and his wife, Ken adds stress to the homefront by forbidding Helen to get a job herself, forcing her to lie by her getting a secretarial job on the sly—which, Ken-like, she rejects when the rich employer, at his private home, tries to land her in bed. This wolf also ends up shot to death and conspicuously robbed; unfortunate timing makes Helen the prime suspect. If she confesses her guilt and Ken nonetheless manages to secure her acquittal at trial, won’t that make him a celebrity lawyer capable of bringing home the bacon?
     There is another psychological piece of the marital puzzle. For Helen, perhaps to offset the clarity of the line for Ken, the difference between “fiction,” which she writes in her spare time and otherwise lives, and “reality” has grown indistinct. In other words, in an increasingly extreme form Helen is imaginative whereas Ken is not.
     Again, the way that Ken is may be helping to make Helen the way she is. Let us say, he brings out the liar in her.
     An unforeseen event convulses the intended course of the trial, but this is a comedy, albeit a striped, if not a black, one, and things do end happily—tentatively, at least. The Bartletts do end up intact, rich, expensively housed; but what good can come of a marriage where the man is a ringer for Fred MacMurray with a thin moustache?

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