“Must we submit to this three-ringed circus in the guise of drama?” – Porter Hall
Carole Lombard is a comedienne of unequivocal talents. My guess is that it lies in that extra special dial she had. Yes, she was a Hollywood glamour girl and stylist of the 1930s — married to the King of Hollywood himself — but she also was totally at ease being absurdly silly. She would become frenzied and unhinged in a manner that feels rather groundbreaking for her generation. She was a very special performer.
True Confession deserves to be acknowledged as a truly satisfying screwball for how it uses Lombard’s talents. Because, you see, her Helen Bartlett is a woman plagued by tall tales. Her fibs take on outrageous proportions. She’s the girl who cries wolf. Quite literally, tongue in cheek. We see it in full effect early on where she tells a string of increasingly wacky fibs to keep a man from impounding her typewriter.
However, the movie wouldn’t stand up if not for her husband. Ken Bartlett (Fred MacMurray) is tirelessly honest which, in the lawyering racket, isn’t always the most lucrative. He won’t represent anyone who’s guilty and that includes the referral of their local butcher who swiped some hams.
But he has that aching desire to exert his manhood and be the sole breadwinner of the house. He wouldn’t dream of having his wife work. No, she spends her days plinking away at the typewriter trying to finish her latest story. She’s got the personality but perhaps not the prose to be a successful writer.
So she conspires with her best friend Daisy (Una Merkel) over what she might do. Her plan is to take a job as a secretary. What of it that she’s never done shorthand or that her husband will have a fit? These are small potatoes and so she takes the job. Unfortunately, sleazy Mr. Krayler is a serial philanderer and as she skips and back peddles to avoid his advances, Helen realizes she has to get out of the secretarial racket.
This might very well be the end of it. But True Confession is forever altered by what happens next. Depending on the outcome it would end up a mystery drama. Thankfully for us, it remains a comedy.
Because she returns to the office to pick up a forgotten handbag only to find the dead weight of Krayler sprawled on the carpet. Soon the police are on the scene — their bald, hoodwinked leader (Edgar Kennedy) suspects her instantly. After all, she has motive. Soon they’ve drummed up a whole story supposin’ how she fled the crime scene.
But we know she is innocent so if the wheels of justice are actually just, there shouldn’t be a problem. A happy ending is easy enough to foresee. Instead, proceedings get strung out. Helen ends in prison suspected of murder and there’s an ensuing trial in front of a judge. Her husband is going to defend her.
Here’s the real screwball wrinkle. Wait for it. She decides to plead guilty. It’s the biggest lie she’s ever told, but if it pays off, then her hubby will be the talk of the town in the courts with a fledgling career to boot. She wants to give him his biggest stage to prove his acumen even if she has to risk perjury to do it. If it doesn’t work, well, the movie never really makes us consider the alternative.
We’ve alluded to the majority of the players, but one would be remiss not to mention two more. Porter Hall is one of the mainstays of Classic Hollywood entertainment and here he turns in a fine performance as a bellicose prosecutor on the prowl.
Then, who can forget John Barrymore hitting the eccentric heights of his career (and also the skids)? Because “The Great Profile” and titan of the great acting family, was now more of a caricature.
As Charley Jasper, he’s giggling maniacally with his ready collection of balloons, his hair rather unkempt, like a mad professor in the courtroom. Why is he here anyway? Why does the story need him? It seems quite thin. I would never dare spoil this little untouched secret.
Instead, the floorshow takes center stage. Mr. and Mrs. Barlett reenact events for the courtroom crowd in a highly irregular manner, but there is something giddy and glib watching Lombard and Macmurray break into playacting in the middle of the trial. It won’t let us forget for a moment this is a comedy, and it stays true to its roots.
I have to admit there’s an unsettling irony in the comedy’s main conceit: a white woman fighting to plead not guilty for a murder that everyone assumes she committed (though she hasn’t). Of course, there’s a historical precedent in antiquity for a woman’s testimony would not be taken.
Even watching something recently like Just Mercy, a different kind of courtroom drama in tone and content, it’s a reminder of how many people, whether black or marginalized in some way, find themselves in much the same predicament, and in their cases, there’s rarely a screwball plotline to conveniently spring them out of their misfortunes.
Social critiques aside, True Confessions is an underrated screwball gem, and it does itself a service thanks to Lombard and Kennedy, Merkel, and Barrymore. However, in our current context, as we seek a renewed sense of justice in the civil space, it must also give us pause.
Notes: This post was originally written in June 2020