review for True Confession on AllMovie

True Confession (1937)
by Bruce Eder review

One looks at Wesley Ruggles' True Confession and wonders precisely what all concerned could have had in mind. It was highly regarded in some quarters in its own time, and there is the kernel of a potentially entertaining comedy, of errors, mix-ups, misunderstandings, half-truths, and out-and-out lies which, with the proper pacing and tone, could have worked. But director Wesley Ruggles never really does more than let it take flight just a few feet above the ground, and always brings everything down to earth (with a thump), and to a lugubrious halt, whenever it's time for Fred MacMurray's righteous young attorney/husband to sound all righteous with his pathological liar wife (Carole Lombard). Some of it is the fault of MacMurray's limitations as an actor at the time -- in later years, in movies such as The Caine Mutiny, and The Apartment, he showed himself perfectly capable of being deadly serious without deadening the pace of a scene; and his first scene in his office in this picture works well; but whenever he's with Lombard, it's as though any range and flexibility he possesses as an actor flees from him. Carole Lombard seems equally ill-at-ease with her role as a pathlogical liar -- perhaps even at the time of its production, there was some unease with so morally- and, really, mentally-challenged a role on the part of the actress; but she seldom seems to step inside of the character as she did in pictures such as Hands Across The Table, in which she's every bit as morally ambiguous but has a better script and also a better director (in Mitchell Leisen) to work with. And John Barrymore, for all of his talent and ability to dominate the screen and a scene, is more an annoying presence than anything else in True Confession, his abilities wasted in the role of a comic, larcenous drunk whose scenes lie there flat, only coming to life when he is sparring with Lynn Overman as a cynical bartender and in his final confrontation with MacMurray's young hero. The whole notion behind True Confession might have worked better on-stage, but whatever was intended, neither the cast nor the director ever finds the right approach to pulling off what was probably intended as a rollicking screwball farce.