Cast & Crew
In 1920s New York, noted baritone Augustino "Gus" Caraffa refuses to sing with sour-voiced amateur Marie Donnelly, even though her newspaper publisher husband Harry offers a large donation to the opera. Gus's press agent, Bill Dempsey, wants Gus to reconsider, but he is adamant, angering Harry so much that he starts a campaign of negative publicity. For days, Harry's photographers take pictures of Gus, then alter them to appear highly provocative. When Gus finally retaliates by breaking a photographer's camera, Harry counters by hiring matronly Mrs. Peccatori to work undercover as Gus's maid. Bill gets a tip that Harry has a "dame" working for him and assumes that Isabelle Perry, a Mississippi-born music student just hired as a spear carrier in the opera Il ritorno di Césare , is the plant. During the performance, the starstruck Isabelle is so entranced with Gus's aria that she causes an accident which results in the entire proscenium being destroyed. After Isabelle is fired, her staid boyfriend, Henry Greene, wants her to return with him to New Jersey, but she insists on apologizing to Gus. They drive to the speakeasy over which Gus lives, and when he notices how pretty she is, he is happy to talk with her. Bill secretly tells Gus that she is Harry's spy and advises him to turn on his charm. Gus is equally charmed by Isabelle, who has been a long-time fan. While Gus and Isabelle are dancing, she turns her ankle. When Henry comes back from moving his car, he sees Gus rubbing her calf and assumes the worst, prompting Isabelle to break their engagement. As she now has no place to stay, Gus suggests that she spend the night on his couch. Her innocent charm convinces Gus that she is not Harry's "plant," but Bill is not sure and devises a plan to turn the tables on Harry. Just as Isabelle and Gus are exchanging a kiss, a photographer hired by Bill bursts in and takes their picture, which Bill plans to run in a rival paper reporting that Isabelle had entrapped Gus. After the photographer leaves, the speakeasy's maitre d' comes in, dragging Mrs. Peccatori, whom he has found snooping. She confesses everything, but it is too late, as Bill's photographer has been jumped by Harry's men, who plan to run the incriminating photo in his paper. To keep the photo from causing further scandal, Bill suggests that Gus and Isabelle get married, thus rendering the photo innocuous. Gus does not want to use Isabelle and warns that theirs cannot be a real marriage, but she is in love with him and eagerly agrees. The ploy infuriates Harry, who retaliates by encouraging Gus's sometimes flame, Countess Lili Szadvany, to sue for breach of promise. Lili has kept Gus's love letters and agrees to serialize her story in the paper for a large sum of money. That same day, Gus and Isabelle pay a visit to his mother to assuage her anger over his not following the Italian tradition of obtaining her permission to marry. Mama soon accepts the sweet-natured Isabelle, even though she is young, skinny and not Italian. While still at Mama's, Gus gets a call from Bill telling him about the lawsuit and asking him to talk to Lili. She and her lawyer insist that Gus sign undated annulment papers for her to drop the suit. Bill, who now realizes that Isabelle is a nice girl, suggests that Gus wait several weeks to break the news to her, and in the interim move into another apartment. Isabelle agrees to separate apartments, then runs to Mama, who says that it must be Lili's fault and determines to help the romance along by taking Isabelle shopping for glamorous clothes and teaching her to cook. When Bill repeatedly thwarts her efforts, Mama suggests that Isabelle pretend to go away for a while. Instead of leaving New York, she goes to a romantic movie, unaware that a lonely Gus is in the same theater. After the movie ends, the pair find each other when his powerful voice overwhelms the audience sing along, and they leave arm in arm. The next morning, a happy Isabelle calls Mama to report her success. Unknown to Isabelle, Gus has gone to Lili's to tell her that he loves Isabelle and no longer cares about the lawsuit. Lili pretends to be happy for him and promises to bring his letters to the opera house that afternoon, then quickly calls her lawyer. The lawyer takes the annulment papers to Isabelle and gives her money, claiming it is from Gus. Because the papers have just been dated, Isabelle assumes that Gus wants the annulment and signs them. When Mama drops by, Isabelle sadly tells her what has happened and leaves for the train station. Mama and her brother Nito then rush to the opera house, where Gus is performing Faust . Nito dons a costume to go onstage and tell Gus what has happened. After finishing the number, Gus stops the music, apologetically explaining his situation, then leaves. When Lili goes backstage to confront Gus, Mama grabs her and gets the letters back. Gus arrives at Grand Central station just in time to catch Isabelle and take her on the next train to Niagara Falls.
William E. Green
Gloria Ann Simpson
Scott R. Beal
Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Lorenzo Di Ponte
Edwin B. Willis
Strictly Dishonorable -
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
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
Strictly Dishonorable -
Melvin Frank and Norman Panama's onscreen credit reads: "Written for the screen, produced and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama." An opera sequence performed early in the film, an aria in the opera Il ritorno di Césare, was actually a fictitious opera written especially for the film by Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco. In the movie theater sequence of the picture, "Gus" and "Isabelle" go to see the 1928 silent M-G-M picture A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert (see AFI Ctalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). Strictly Dishonorable marked the dramatic acting debut of Metropolitan Opera singer and Broadway star Ezio Pinza (1892-1957). Pinza had shot the film Mr. Imperium previously, but that picture was released later. According to the Newsweek review of Strictly Dishonorable, Pinza was shortly to learn whether M-G-M planned to pick up his option for additional pictures; the article went on to note that Pinza was to receive $50,000 if the studio did not pick up his option. Pinza made only one additional film, the Twentieth Century-Fox picture Tonight We Sing (see below). An Hollywood Reporter news item includes Norman Field in the cast, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
An earlier film adaptation of Preston Sturges' play was made in 1931 by Universal Pictures. That film was directed by John M. Stahl and starred Paul Lukas and Sidney Fox in the lead roles. According to a modern source, Sturges had proposed the idea of a remake of the story to M-G-M, with Pinza specifically in mind. The source added that Sturges received $60,000 for the rights to his play but was disappointed that he was not hired to work on the film's screenplay. A Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film was broadcast on December 8, 1952, starring Janet Leigh, with Fernando Lamas taking over Pinza's role.
Released in United States July 6, 1951
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1951
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1951
Released in United States July 6, 1951