Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
TRUE CONFESSION. 1937. Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Porter Hall, Edgar Kennedy, Lynne Overman, Fritz Feld, Tom Dugan, John T. Murray, Hattie MacDaniel. Director: Wesley Ruggles.
Honest lawyer Ken Bartlett (MacMurray) won’t represent anyone unless he thinks they are genuinely innocent, and as a result he and wife Helen (Lombard) are struggling. Since opposites attract in film as well as life, Lombard is a compulsive liar and writes fiction that doesn’t sell because as friend Merkel says, “all the people you write about are crazy.”
Desperate for work Lombard takes a job as personal assistant to a wealthy man (John T. Murray) with plans to hide the job from her husband despite warnings from Merkel about her best qualification being something other than shorthand.
Lombard: Where does the secretary usually do most of her work?
Butler Fritz Feld: Hah!
Sure enough boss gets a bit handsy, Lombard resists and hits him , and then when she goes back with Merkel in tow for her hat, the police led by Edgar Kennedy show up, and Mr. Arnold’s body is shot dead in his home office. Good thing she is married to a lawyer, but he only defends the innocent, and he’s not so sure she’s among them.
This was the fourth and final outing for Lombard and MacMurray, and by this point they were a smooth team with another even better screwball comedy, the mystery The Princess Comes Across, under their belts. Here a mustache-bearing MacMurray is more than a little peeved with her, but still can’t live without her or with her.
Ironically John Barrymore, top billed not that many years before in Twentieth Century, is third billed here and well towards the end of his career.
Lombard is delightful with a fine scene when she gets caught up in Edgar Kennedy’s theory of why she did it, and then when she finds Kennedy doesn’t want an easy case, her too fertile mind leaps to his aid, and she confesses more or less just to entertain him. Whenever her tongue wanders into her right cheek there is trouble afoot.
When her gun shows up in her apartment she is headed for a cell, and an angry MacMurray still can’t stay mad when he is near her, his stern lectures always ending in a clench even in a cell. But when he finds out she didn’t do it, his whole strategy is shot, since he can’t claim self-defense, and Lombard sees it as a chance for him to get headlines and business — even with her neck on the line, so she tells MacMurray she shot the man in self-defense even though she didn’t.
Enter John Barrymore blowing balloons and popping them in a saloon to the annoyance of owner Lynne Overman. Barrymore lays claim to being a great criminologist as a “student of life,” and after reading about the case, he is off to the courtroom where he is a regular in his white Chaplinesque suit (clearly his character is modeled on Chaplin’s little tramp even miming the walk and the cane twirl).
Things look bad. Prosecutor Porter Hall seems to have a perfect case for first degree murder against her, so her confession doesn’t look half so promising for her husband’s career. As Barrymore tells Merkel, “She’ll fry.”
Barrymore shows up to talk to Lombard in her cell and frightens her to death describing how she will look “fried,” leaving her more than a little scared as reality sets in so she retracts her confession — again, but now MacMurray only wants to win the “honest way.” She’s stuck with her lie, only now she realizes she could end up in the chair.
Watch for the scene where she and MacMurray recreate the crime in court a bit too strenuously with the less than cooperative aid of a prop door that won’t open while Barrymore lets air out of one of his balloons as commentary.
By now even the jury is lost and find her not guilty out of sheer confusion. And there’s more to come…
This is a fast, often zany, and at times delirious screwball comedy. It really isn’t a mystery despite the murder, and MacMurray has a point that it a lot of happiness to come from someone’s murder, but no one seems to mind as much as he does.
Lombard rides again, unrepentant to the end, the last shot of her, as MacMurray slings her over his shoulder to try and teach her the error of her ways again, is tongue literally in cheek.
This may not rank with It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, or Nothing Sacred, but that said, it is fresh, funny, and thanks to Lombard, sometimes takes flight as only the best of screwball comedy can. In any case a Lombard film I’ve never seen before is always worth watching.