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Strictly Dishonorable

Preston Sturges' Strictly Dishonorable, a romantic comedy, opened on Broadway in September 1929. An instant hit, it ran for 557 performances and became the longest-running Broadway play up to that point. Hollywood came calling, and Sturges sold the film rights to Universal for a whopping $125,000. He also asked to write the screenplay. But Universal declined his request and went on to make the film without his involvement; released in 1931, it starred Paul Lukas, Sidney Fox and Lewis Stone, directed by John Stahl.

Sturges, meanwhile, started his own film career, writing many fine screenplays through the 1930s and becoming a director in 1940, after which he turned out some of the best film comedies of all time. By 1951, his power, popularity and output were nearing the end. He had an inkling, however, that MGM might be interested in launching a musical remake of Strictly Dishonorable for the opera and Broadway star Ezio Pinza, who was currently shooting Mr. Imperium (1951) at the studio. Pinza had left the Metropolitan Opera a few years earlier and transitioned to Broadway with his famous performance as Emile de Becque in South Pacific -- a sensation that won him a Tony Award. Now he was in Hollywood trying to transition to yet another medium.

Sturges later recounted in his memoir that he personally bought out his theatrical producing producer's share of Strictly Dishonorable and convinced Universal to agree to sell its screen rights. Then Sturges brought the entire package to MGM, and suggested -- as he had to Universal twenty years earlier -- that they hire him to adapt the property into a musical screenplay. Once again, the studio's answer was no to Sturges as writer, but yes to the property itself. MGM bought the package for $110,000, paying $50,000 to Universal and $60,000 to Sturges.

The resulting film, Strictly Dishonorable (1951), indeed starred Pinza as well as 24-year-old Janet Leigh in a comic, musical story of a May-December romance between an opera star and the wide-eyed southern gal who has idolized him since childhood. The posters declared: "She's a girl who's never been kissed... he's a wolf who's never missed a kiss!"

Pinza had previously appeared in a stand-alone musical number inserted into the movie Carnegie Hall (1947), directed by Edgar Ulmer, but now he was actually playing a part and acting. He was also, of course, called upon to sing a couple of operatic numbers and two popular songs -- "Everything I Have Is Yours," by Burton Lane and Harold Adamson, and "I'll See You in My Dreams," by Isham Jones and Gus Khan. The film turned out so well that MGM temporarily pulled the disastrous Mr. Imperium from theaters after a brief, limited release in order to give Strictly Dishonorable a wide distribution first. The move worked; Strictly Dishonorable drew positive reviews, and Pinza was seen as acquitting himself nicely.

"Pinza comes through with flying colors," declared The Hollywood Reporter. A "far better showcase" for Pinza than Mr. Imperium, judged Variety. And The New York Times said of Pinza: "His manner and smile are disarming -- and, of course, the gentleman can sing. As the strangely eccentric young lady who sometimes resists, sometimes pursues, Janet Leigh is pretty and appealing with the purified material she has."

But in the end, neither of the two pictures gave Pinza a Hollywood career. "Fate never intended me to be a film star," he later reflected. "It is difficult to say exactly what went wrong with my films. Being human, I shall blame others first, and then myself. The build-up I was given placed me at an extreme disadvantage both as a singer and as an actor. I was Pinza the Great Lover, God's Own Gift to the Aging Man, Mr. Middle-Aged Sex Himself! All that was necessary, the film executives must have thought, was to place me in amorous situations before the camera with some enticing female -- and a terrific success was certain.... But the scripts were without humor or style or the slightest opportunity for acting. The big mistake of the film executives was to order me to generate sex appeal, rather than create character. My mistake was to try to fill the order."

Pinza added that movies were inherently difficult for him because he was never at his best unless he had an audience in front of him, "a live, warm, critical audience to conquer anew with each performance... In front of the camera, with only the director's instructions to stimulate me, with lights glaring in my eyes and censors crawling all around, measuring the inches and fractions of inches between me and my screen love, I [could] give no more than a professional performance. This I did, but professionalism is no substitute for that indefinable quality without which there is no spark."

Following the two MGM pictures, Pinza made one more feature, Tonight We Sing (1953), for Twentieth Century-Fox, before returning to Broadway to star in another hit musical, Fanny.

Strictly Dishonorable opened in many theaters on a double bill with Anthony Mann's fine period noir The Tall Target (1951). The "film within the film" seen here is footage from A Woman of Affairs (1928), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.

By Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:
Ezio Pinza with Robert Magidoff, Ezio Pinza: An Autobiography
Preston Sturges, Preston Sturges
Janet Leigh, There Really Was a Hollywood
Donald Spoto, Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges

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