An adaptation of Preston Sturges’ 1929 stage play, Strictly Dishonorable was the man’s first Broadway hit and with the title coming from something he once said to a woman he was attempting to seduce. Otherwise it’s a fictional affair though, and is one of those films which is quite clearly based on a play as the majority of the action takes place in just a couple of locations and it relies on the dialogue to provide the laughs.
A pre-code comedy, which means it could, somewhat shockingly, hint that sex sometimes occurs between men and women who weren’t actually married, it begins when unwed couple Henry (George Meeker) and Isabelle (Sidney Fox) visit a speakeasy run by Tomasso (William Ricciardi) and frequented by former judge Dempsey (Lewis Stone) and opera singer Count Gus Di Ruvo (Paul Lukas). Henry’s a possessive shit alas who won’t even let Isabelle sit at the bar without an argument, and when the Judge learns that they’re not married he’s appalled, an attitude which becomes more extreme as Isabelle has a dance with Gus and he twice comments that they’re playing with dynamite.
Unfortunately for Henry the Judge isn’t wrong, and after Henry proves himself to be a racist shit when he uses the word “dagos” and accuses Gus of having “Gangster friends” just because he’s Italian, Isabelle has had enough and the couple split up. The night gets even worse for him when Henry gets in to an argument with a police officer called Mulligan over where his car was parked, and proving that police brutality is no new thing the cop says “Well he’ll be lucky this night if he doesn’t lose some of his teeth” and the Judge has to talk him out of killing him, though the dialogue is a little less on the nose than I’ve made it sound.
Once arrested and hauled away to a cell for the night Gus offers to put Isabelle up for the night, and the title of the movie comes in to play when she asks him what his intentions are. The Judge is an interfering old busy body however and invites himself in for a party so that Gus can’t make a move, Mulligan pops up again to make sure that Isabelle hasn’t been kidnapped, but after a fair bit of flirtation Gus realises he’s in love with Isabelle and so decides not to seduce her and sleeps in the Judge’s apartment instead.
At times during this middle section it feels a bit like “They kiss, they fight, they kiss and fight and kiss, kiss kiss kiss, fight fight fight, the Izzy and Count Gus show!” and Gus’s oddly mean behaviour to Isabelle makes him almost as dislikeable as Henry. At least this part of the film is fairly short, and Gus reveals why he was being such a turd at the end of the film where despite Henry popping up once more Isabelle ends up with her opera singing love.
Set mostly in either the speakeasy or Gus’s apartment it does occasionally feel like a slightly claustrophobic piece, and it’s not exactly the most subtle of movies, making such a villain out of Henry that I’m surprised you can’t hear the cameramen booing him when he enters a scene. But the dialogue sings, Sidney Fox’s Isabelle is a formidable female lead and the way Gus charms her is pleasingly amusing, it’s not the kind of film which will set your world on fire but it is an inviting and engaging effort and a pleasurable way to spend an hour and a half.