Almost A Classic: Strictly Dishonorable (1951)

strictly dishonorable 1951 indexThe second adaptation of the stage play by Preston Sturges, and written for the screen, produced and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, this sees Janet Leigh fall for Ezio Pinza’s Count Gus and unlike the majority of remakes it actually has a reason to exist as it takes Sturges original tale and expands upon it a great deal. The original featured only a few characters and was a slightly claustrophobic piece set mostly in two locations, whereas this expands the cast and the places they interact in a good deal.

That’s most obviously the case in the opening twenty minutes, where we’re introduced to Gus and new character Marie Donnelly (Gale Robbins), who is desperate to join the cast of Gus’s latest opera. She’s only being given a chance to audition as her husband Harry (Hugh Sanders) is a newspaper magnate who has the power to ruin Gus’s career, but her singing is so awful that Gus refuses to let her join the production. Gus’s manager Bill (Millard Mitchell) tries to persuade him but he won’t relent, and inevitably Marie’s husband is so outraged that he starts running a number of shitty stories about Gus. Many of these involve a photographer sneaking up on him, grabbing a photograph, and then altering the context, with the biggest laugh coming from a fake photograph of Gus on a horse without trousers.

Unlike the original we also get to witness Gus sing on stage and it’s a large scale production, and a fairly impressive one at that, Pinza had been an opera singer for the majority of his career and only attempted to become a Hollywood star towards the end of it, and he has both the vocals and the charm to be quite the captivating lead. New to the cast of the opera is Janet Leigh’s Isabelle who accidentally causes chaos when holding a prop sword and fails to notice that its handle is heating up in a flame, and when she hands it to Gus the shock of the pain leads to a lot of pratfalling and the set being destroyed, and soon the audience is in hysterics at the ensuing madness.

Isabelle, who just so happens to be Gus’s biggest fan and knows everything about the man, is devastated, and also soon fired, so unable to apologise to him. As she feels enormously guilty she asks her fiancé Henry Green (Arthur Franz, in a greatly reduced role to the original) to call in on at the Speakeasy that Gus lives above. There’s some brief interactions with the owner Tomasso (Sandro Giglio) but as with Henry he’s in this version a lot less, while the Judge who is shocked by the news that Isabelle and Henry live together without being married is missing completely.

In the 1931 version a large chunk of the film is set in the Speakeasy but in this we only visit it briefly, just long enough for Henry to get annoyed by a policeman and then have Isabelle break up with him for his racist comments, which while still offensive aren’t as bad as those found in the original. All throughout this Bill is absolutely convinced that Isabelle is working for Harry Donnelly and persuades Gus not to trust her, and as he predicts that Isabelle and Henry will break up that very night so that Isabelle has nowhere to stay, and Gus would have to save her from a night on the streets, when that happens a still sceptical Gus starts to believe him.

All of this is very, very different from the original movie, and that becomes even more the case after a photograph of Isabelle and Gus falls in to the wrong hands, Gus and Bill discover that a new housekeeper is really a spy working for Harry Donnelly, and to prevent his career being ruined Gus and Isabelle marry. Expanding upon the original even more this all happens in the first half of the movie, and the second sees Gus blackmailed by his former lover Lili (Maria Palmer), having to win his mother (Esther Minciotti) round after she’s horrified that Gus married without her permission, and Isabelle has to do her damnedest to get Gus to fall in love with her too.

Giving all the changes, Sturges original Broadway play makes for only about thirty minute of the whole thing, and very little of his dialogue is transferred to this version. All of which feels a bit bizarre, to the extent that you wonder why they bothered to call it a remake and didn’t just alter a couple more things and create their own original film completely, as much of the sexual innuendo of the play and its first pre-code film production is missing from this picture. I can only presume that it was due to the reputation of the original play and film that they thought would boost the box office, which sadly didn’t happen and this was an enormous flop for MGM.

Most say that the 1931 version is the better of the two but I found myself charmed by this a great deal, it has a lot of very funny dialogue that is just as snappy as that found in the original, and the leads have great chemistry and for me are far more fun too. The way it’s set in a number of different locations means it avoids suffering from the claustrophobic feel that the original sometimes does, and the scenes involving Gus singing at the opera are both a fascinating snapshot of productions of that era but also very funny moments too.

The original was more of a farce and a light sex comedy, but this also throws in some satire of the newspaper industry, features a lot more slapstick, and the extra characters are all very entertaining, Gus’s manager Bill and his mother especially. There’s perhaps one too many ridiculous complication towards the end of the movie but that’s dealt with fairly efficiently, and otherwise this is a film which has an awful lot going for it, and it is one remake which really doesn’t deserve its poor reputation.

★★★★

Alex Finch.
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