Mississippi belle Isabelle and her hard-headed, quick-tempered Jersey fiancé Henry arrive at an Italian speakeasy in New York. They meet an amiable retired judge there, but Henry's back is up immediately anyway. Henry leaves as his car is parked illegally. Isabelle likes the opera, and it happens that her favourite singer, Di Ruvo, is a bar patron that evening. "Gus", as he prefers to be known, is very charming. Henry returns to find the pair dancing. A row ensues; Henry leaves. Isabelle accepts Gus's offer to retire to his apartment even though he warns her his intentions are "strictly dishonourable". But Henry has told Officer Mulligan that Isabelle has been "kidnapped by villains"... Written by
After a long period of neglect Preston Sturges is now firmly enshrined in the ranks of the great filmmakers of Hollywood's golden age, celebrated by fans as a first rate director and a screenwriter of genius. His claim to fame as a great playwright remains obscure, however: from 1929 to 1932 Sturges had five plays produced on Broadway, and while two were moderately successful two more were outright flops. Only one of these works was an unqualified success, but that playhis second, a comedy called "Strictly Dishonorable" happened to be one of the biggest smash hits of the era. Sturges seldom did anything halfway! And because this hit coincided with the birth of the talkies, it was only natural that the major studios would vie for the playwright's services as a screenwriter, and produce an adaptation. Universal Pictures won the competition and duly produced the movie. And yet, despite the renewed attention Sturges has received in recent years, the film version of his biggest stage hit seems to be in limbo, seldom screened at revival houses and never available in an official video or DVD release. That's a pity, for while it lacks the dizzy, iconoclastic spirit Sturges the director would bring to his screenplays of the '40s, the movie version of Strictly Dishonorable is an interesting and unusual introduction to this uniquely gifted artist.
Directed by John M. Stahl, Strictly Dishonorable is, first and foremost, a filmed play, and that's both a plus and a minus. On the plus side, Sturges' script was used almost verbatim with only a handful of cuts and minor changes, so the movie serves as a decent archival record of the show. On the other hand, because the actors recite their dialog without the benefit of a live audience (i.e. laughter) this sort of film-making can sometimes result in a kind of mummified artifact, neither live theater nor lively cinema. In this case, fortunately, the acting and the offbeat quality of the story hold viewer interest, and although it remains stage-bound this movie is more enjoyable than many other early talkies. Happily, in 1931 the filmmakers were still unencumbered by the dread Production Code, so we get not only most of the original dialog but a provocative theme, one that would never have gotten a green light from the Breen Office a few years later.
The story revolves around a young Southern belle named Isabelle Perry (played by the ill-fated Sidney Fox). Isabelle has come to New York with her unpleasant fiancée Henry, who clearly expects to control her life in every respect once they're married and safely ensconced with his family in West Orange, New Jersey. First, however, they share an unhappy night on the town in Manhattan and wind up in an atmospheric speakeasy. Here they meet a hard-drinking retired judge (Lewis Stone) whose philosophical quips perk things along, and a famous Italian opera star (Paul Lukas) known professionally as Tino Carrafa, who modestly insists on being called "Gus." Gus is an old friend of the speakeasy's proprietor, and he keeps an apartment upstairs. He's also a notorious Casanova. When Gus shows Isabelle a little too much attention her fiancée loses his temper, makes an ugly scene, and gets thrown outbut Isabelle stays. In fact, she spends the night in Gus' room upstairs, in a pair of borrowed pajamas. The two of them have fallen in love at first sight, but now the central question becomes: will the chaste Isabelle sleep with the guy, or not? And when Henry returns in the morning, who will she choose?
A plot that hinges on a woman choosing whether or not to retain her virginity startled Broadway audiences in 1929, and surely sparked the play's great success. This is more than just a routine sex farce, however. Sturges' gift for strong characterization and witty dialog are already present. It's surprising, even now, to hear Isabelle wonder aloud why men make such a fuss about her virginity, "as if it mattered to anybody but me." Sturges' play script was re-published in the 1980s in an anthology, and when I re-read it after seeing the film I found that only a handful of lines were deleted. One significant change, however, was that while the Judge Dempsey of the play was still professionally active, the film's Dempsey is retired; apparently, the filmmakers didn't want to suggest that any working judge spends so much time hanging out drinking in speakeasies. There's also an amusing inside joke here for movie buffs, because Lewis Stone went on to cinematic immortality as MGM's wise, eminently sober Judge Hardy!
I was fortunate enough to see this rarity at NYC's Film Forum with an appreciative crowd. Stone was decidedly the audience favorite. I confess I had mixed feeling about Sidney Fox's performance during the first couple of scenes, but she grew on me. Early on, her Southern accent struck me as exaggerated, but after a while it seemed like a key component of Isabelle's strategic arsenal; that is, she comes off like the kind of Southern belle who deliberately emphasizes her accent for effect. (I've known people like that.) And by the end of the movie Fox's Isabelle felt like a deft, fully rounded characterization. I was sorry to learn afterward that the film career of this attractive actress was so brief, and sorrier still to discover that her life ended tragically. The only movies she appeared in that get any attention nowadays are the ones that also feature actors who went on to bigger things: Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Bela Lugosi, etc. Sidney Fox deserves better, and so does Strictly Dishonorable. There are plenty of buffs, most especially fans of Preston Sturges, who would welcome this film's re-emergence from the studio vaults.
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