True Confession (Paramount) is the latest effort of an expert team of light comedy artisans, Director Wesley Ruggles and Screenwriter Claude Binyon. It is also a new comic high for Carole Lombard whowith Nothing Sacred, in which she is co-starred with Fredric March, released last month and still playing the first-run housesis in the envied position of competing with herself at U. S. box offices.
Helen Bartlett (Carole Lombard) had to tell lies. She did not always gain by lying; she often lost, but she had to tell lies because her way of seeing things made them so fascinating, so endlessly fecund in rich if fanciful possibilities. Her husband, Kenneth (Fred MacMurray), was entirely different. He was the kind of lawyer who would volunteer to defend a truckman against the charge of stealing hamsbut refuse when he found out his fee was to be paid from the sale of the hams. Helen Bartlett lied to the butcher, the grocer, the man from the typewriter company. The fiction she wrote on the typewriter didn't sell, so she lied to Kenneth about a secretarial job she had made up her mind to take. It was with a broker who was going to pay her a large salary for little work, although she couldn't take short-hand and did not type very well. When the broker (John T. Murray) tries to make love to her, Helen runs out of the house. She goes back later for her hat, coat and purse and finds the broker lying murdered and herself the leading suspect.
This is an odd beginning for a comedyand comic True Confession is skillfully played and paced, keyed up to the pitch of the dizziest haywire skit. Yet what makes True Confession funnier than most haywire comedies is that as melodrama it could be just as effective. Neither liar Helen nor Kenneth, the man of principle, is caricatured, so their dilemma seems true and could be terrible; outside the hilarity nightmare is imminent.
Helen, in her hour of need, thinks of a lifesaving lieshe killed the broker to protect her honor. Then Husband Kenneth can win fame defending her. After a trial scene which includes the most insane re-enactment of a murder ever photographed. Helen is acquitted, Kenneth's career begun. Now publishers compete for Helen's written fictions. Only one thought clouds Kenneth's bliss: Helen has killed a man. Suppose, she hints, she hadn't really killed him: just imagine, for the sake of argument, that she was lying. . . . But Kenneth is more desolated at this possibility than by the proven homicide.
Then once more horror, ludicrous and blowsy, leers at their brittle situation, simpers up to them in the person of one Charley (John Barrymore), derelict at large, a bedraggled barfly and connoisseur of crime, who alone of living men knows who really killed the broker. When Ken has routed Charley he prepares to leave his lying wife. She wins him back with one final lie, which may come true.
Of True Confession's three leading players, John Barrymore as the half-maudlin, crazily cunning pariah has far the smallest part but handles it with a Hogarthian swagger which threatens to eclipse his colleagues. Accused of stealing the picture, he remarked gallantly, "Nobody ever steals a picture from Carole Lombard."