True Confession (1937)

Directed by Wesley Ruggles
Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff


Helen Bartlett (Carole Lombard) is the wife of the honest lawyer Ken (Fred MacMurray). She is a “writer” but cannot think of anything to write and instead lives in her fantasy world of telling lies. When she discovers that they are broke, she attempts to get Ken to take a case of a man who stole hams. Ken, who is scrupulously honest and will not defend a client who is guilty, finds out that the man really did steal the hams, and therefore does not take the case. Helen is forced to get a job as a secretary for businessman Otto Krayler (John T. Murray), a family friend. On her first day in his sumptuous apartment/office, he attempts to seduce Helen, which causes Helen to quit the job. However, she discovers that she accidentally left her hat and coat behind. She returns with her friend Daisy McClure (Una Merkel) only to find that Otto Krayler has been killed and $12,000 of missing money is the supposed motive. Police lieutenant Darcey (Edgar Kennedy) suspects Helen and take her into custody. To further complicate her situation, Helen spins multiple possible accounts of the murder, discussing how she might have done it in each scenario, but finally says that she had nothing to do with it.


Ken represents Helen at the trial and believes that there is no way that the jury will believe that Helen did not commit the murder, and therefore has her plead self-defense. As the trial continues, an obnoxious man named Charles “Charley” Jasper (John Barrymore) believes that Helen did not murder Krayler, but he keeps it to himself.

Helen wins the case and publishes a hugely successful novel of her life story. Having earned a fortune, Helen and Ken buy a lavish home on Lake Martha, but Ken expresses remorse that their fortune has come out of crime. Helen wonders if she should confess her innocence, but Ken states that perjury would be worse than the crime she had already committed. Meanwhile, Charles visits Helen and Ken with Krayler’s wallet and attempts to blackmail them into saying that he (Charley) killed Krayler and having Helen perjure herself. Helen then tells Ken that she did not kill Krayler and has Charley confess that his brother-in-law was the real murderer. Ken leaves the house, distressed by Helen’s lying, but Helen chases after him and lies once more by saying that she is pregnant. For a moment, Ken believes her, but then realizes that she is lying once again. He almost walks away, but realizing that this is what life is like with a congenital fantasist, he puts Helen over his shoulder and carries her into the house, the implication being that he is going to make her lie become true by getting her pregnant.


Right Out Of The Lucy Ricardo Playbook

10 March 2011 | by bkoganbing (Buffalo, New York) – See all my reviews

I think a whole lot of people don’t really get this film from the reviews I’m reading. Carol Lombard who likes to spin tall tales of exaggeration is married to poor, but honest lawyer Fred MacMurray and tries her best to help.

The key scene here in True Confessions is right at the beginning when Lombard fetches MacMurray a client who happens to be guilty. Someone should have told Fred that only Perry Mason can afford to represent innocent clients only. So when he declines to be a lawyer for a man who will pay him out of the stolen hams he swiped from a butcher shop, Carol decides that he needs a name acquittal to gain him clients.

When she goes for a job with lecherous millionaire John Murphy who later winds up dead and circumstantial evidence points to her, she ‘confesses’ kind of, sort of to exasperated police detective Edgar Kennedy. It’s enough to get her arrested and her husband his first real client.


It’s all kind of dumb, but Lombard’s scheme is right out of the Lucy Ricardo playbook. The trial is one for the books as well with District Attorney Porter Hall letting victory slip through his fingers.

Another character pops in to almost upset the applecart. John Barrymore who was cast in the part at Lombard’s request to repay the debt she owed him from Twentieth Century plays a ‘criminologist’ down on his luck who comes across some key evidence that could upset everyone’s plans. Sadly though Barrymore does a great job in the part, he’s really not acting at all. The role is a caricature of what Barrymore had become. But it was a payday and I’m sure he was grateful to Lombard somewhat.

Playing Ethel to Lombard’s Lucy is Una Merkel, a role she’d done before and would again. Lombard’s ‘True Confession’ scene with Kennedy is a priceless one.


Una Merkel

I’m sure Fred MacMurray felt in this last of four films in which they were paired that Carole had a lot of ‘Splaining to do’.



Wildly Underrated Black Comedy with Lombard at Her Best

Author: HarlowMGM from United States
10 December 2008

TRUE CONFESSION is one of the unsung gems of the 1930’s, a brilliant black comedy that surprisingly is often written off as a misfire. I think it may be because it is so remarkably different than other 1930’s comedies which usually feature lovable and endearing characters in a charming situation; in TRUE CONFESSION we get a certified pathological liar in Lombard and a downright menacing villain in Barrymore. Lombard starts as a woman finds herself falsely accused of murder, to help her husband’s floundering career as a lawyer she falsely admits to the crime!! This wacky, envelope-pushing comedy is a thorough delight and makes the cynicism in a more famous Lombard picture, NOTHING SACRED, seem downright sugary. Alas, this picture, clearly inspired by the plot of the famous 1920’s musical CHICAGO, was obviously too audacious in theme for 1930’s audiences as it would be in 1942 when Ginger Rogers filmed the musical as a song-less comedy in ROXIE HART. CHICAGO was never really appreciated until it’s 1975 revival and it’s later film version with Renee Zellwegger, but critical respect for ROXIE HART came around with time and I believe it’s time for TRUE CONFESSION too to get a new reevaluation as a pioneer black comedy.


Lombard is at her best as the novelist who couldn’t tell the truth if she wanted to; Barrymore is superb in an over-the-top caricature of as seedy adventurer. Una Merkel is absolutely perfect as Carole’s best friend, this has to be one of her greatest roles. Fred MacMurray is a solid presence as Lombard’s devoted and idealistic husband and very sexy too, especially in those swimsuit scenes near the end. Famed movie musical chorine Toby Wing is fun in a bit part as the mistress/”secretary” of the deceased and Hattie McDaniel is hilarious in her few scenes and has perhaps the best line in the picture as she quizzes MacMurray about possibly representing her in as of yet uncommitted crime. Beautifully photographed by Ted Tetzlaff and brilliantly directed Wesley Ruggles, TRUE CONFESSION has more potential to become a cult film than any as of yet undiscovered 1930’s comedy that I’ve seen.


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