True Confession

Ring a Ding Ding

True Confession (1937)

     I mentioned before that the first on-screen pairing of Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray was a bit lack luster on the latter actor’s part, but when the two reunited two years later for True Confession they had something better going on. Lombard still far outshines her male counterpart but MacMurray at least is a more seasoned comedian by this point, which helps to back the hilarity the actress brings to the screen.

     Lombard brought all kinds of unique character traits to her role of Helen Bartlett, some of which were scripted and others that make me certain this part would have been entirely different if portrayed by another actress. We first see Helen scuffling up the stairs of her apartment building while muttering something repeatedly to herself before sitting down to the telephone in her flat and recounting some gossip to her lawyer husband (MacMurray) that could mean a case for the less-than-successful attorney. It seems the butcher’s son is charged with stealing a van full of hams. Having his scruples, however, means that lawyer Kenneth Bartlett will not defend a guilty party. The alleged thief says he did not steal the hams but will not be able to pay Kenneth until he gets money from selling the hams. Naturally, the attorney throws him out.

     We now have the groundwork for this ruthlessly honest lawyer and as we spend more time with Helen –an unsuccessful fiction writer– we find she is a compulsive liar, having duped a man sent to repossess her typewriter into believing her husband is insane and thinks the machine his baby. Looking to earn some money to support the family but wanting to hide the work from her disapproving husband, Helen takes a job with a rich man who needs a personal secretary four days a week, three hours a day for $50 per week. The deal is really too good to be true, which Helen learns as the man starts chasing her around his home office before she socks him in the gut and runs out.

     When Helen returns later with the moral support of friend Daisy (Una Merkel) to retrieve her hat, purse and coat, the police arrive immediately because it seems the man has just been shot dead. The confusion has Helen looking mighty guilty. She is taken to the police headquarters and as the detective begins to verbally construct his presumed sequence of events, Helen –story writer that she is– one-ups him with a better explanation of why she killed him, before again denying the crime. The police even find a gun in the Bartlett home with two bullets missing (Helen had fired them at a tree as research for her writing) and determine her gun killed the man.

     When Kenneth comes to his wife in jail he naturally presumes she killed the man as self-defense, and thinking that given the mounds of evidence against her make that explanation more likely than her innocence, Helen rolls with it. Here enters John Barrymore as the excessively creepy Charley, a mad man whom we quickly assume is the actual murderer. He follows the trial intently, sitting beside Daisy in court and noisily deflating a balloon throughout. He repeatedly insists Helen will “fry” but Kenneth gets the gal off. The now-successful writer-lawyer couple are enjoying a wealthy life when Charley decides he wants to claim the luxuries he naturally thinks belong to him, given he is the actual murderer.

     Lombard is possibly at her best in True Confessions, which I realize is a bold statement given the public’s general love of My Man Godfrey. Her character is so impulsive, often sticking her tongue into her cheek as a signal to us she has just thought up a doozy of a lie. MacMurray also has to hold her back as she attempts to throw things at the prosecuting attorney during the trial or threatens to beat him up. As I said, MacMurray –whom I generally consider to be a great comedic performer– pales in comparison to this woman, but as he should. The two characters are on the opposite sides of the spectrum in their beliefs and so too are the qualities of their personalities.

     Barrymore, who shows up about half way through, could have upstaged both the leads had he been given more screen time. In a purely comedic movie, he gives a dramatic performance that genuinely conveys the personality of a mad man. He makes no motion to gain a laugh deliberately, instead adhering to the sociopathic glitches for which his character calls. Barrymore also appeared with Lombard in 1934’s Twentieth Century in which the two play actors whose dramatic personalities lead to equally hair-brained action aboard a train. Also a very good watch.

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2 Responses

  1. I really want to see this one, not only for Carole Lombard, but also for Barrymore, as he is one of my favourite actors. He was very ill with alcoholism by this time and I’ve read that studio bosses didn’t want him for the lead role opposite Lombard in ‘Nothing Sacred’, but he did get this smaller role instead. Must agree they are great together in ‘Twentieth Century’. Enjoyed your review!

    • Whether intentionally or not, Barrymore sure does look like an alcoholic. He is quite haggard, so it does not surprise me he had a problem.

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