The Speak

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The first film adaptation of Preston Sturges’ hit play STRICTLY DISHONORABLE (followed by a 50s musical with Janet Leigh) takes some time to get going. It’s miscast all to hell, and the poor condition of the sound on the copy I saw had a glooming effect on the ambience. What Guy Maddin calls “the warm bath of audio hiss” gets discomfiting when the volume rises above the dialogue — you feel the actors are drowning in that bath, their merry chatter a mere displacement activity to divert their minds as the lip of the water rises around their smiling faces…

Paul Lukas isn’t miscast, really, although he’s mean to be playing an Italian opera singer. By Hollywood standards, where anybody foreign can play anybody else foreign, a Hungarian as an Italian is practically typecasting. It should be easier to accept New Yorker Sidney Fox (nee Leiffer) as a southern belle, but it sure isn’t. Still, Fox with unexpected puppy fat is enticing to look at, if not to listen to.

The guy who runs the speakeasy in and above which the action takes place is an early Sturges funny dialect character is played by an actual Italian, William Ricciardi, a fatal error. Maybe Sturges hadn’t intended his usual babbling malaprop figure (Akim Tamiroff or Lionel Stander or Luis Alberni), but I can’t believe this illicit barkeep was meant to be played like an Italian count.

Lewis Stone, who never struck me as a comedian, still doesn’t strike me as a comedian, but manages a few laughs as a drunken judge. It’s hard to know how many other laughs he might be stifling, though — director John Stahl seems content to let the humour fend for itself as the cast trample all over it.

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It pains me to say that Sidney Toler, who made a very poor Charlie Chan despite his eyelids, and who has the kind of face the Germans talk about, gives the best performances as Mulligan, a stereotypical Irish-American cop character. The first time you’d know this was a comedy comes when Riciardi refers to his joint as a speakeasy and the friendly cop advises him, “How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t know what kind of place this is?” That’s half an hour into the film.

“I’m not getting much sense of Sturges from this dialogue,” remarked Fiona, and she was right — I don’t think it’s Hollywood rewriting, I think it maybe is just the cast clumsily smashing everything in their mouths.

The next great bit is, improbably, from Stone. “Speaking ex officio, I would say that honour should be tempered with the milk of human kindness, that is, if it’s possible to temper anything with milk.” Very Sturgesian — a platitude is derailed by the vagaries of language, leading a character up an unfamiliar and original branch line he hadn’t inteded to explore.

Then it takes a while but Fox gets a zinger: she’s contemplating sex out of wedlock, and Stone tries to dissuade her, stating that in all the instances he’s heard of, such decisions have ended in sorrow. “Well, maybe it’s just that when you don’t hear about them when they end happily,” she suggests, with faultless sex pixie logic.

Curiously, Lukas never really gets a classic Sturgesian moment, suggesting that while he seems to suit his role to the extent of never actually clashing with his surroundings, he can’t quite energize the material the way a Sturges actor would.

 

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