Strictly Dishonorable by Preston Sturges: Synposis with analysis

This sample synposis is excerpted from a paper I wrote for a graduate school class in American theatre. 

We were asked to discuss the viability of reviving an American play that had been a big hit and/or won awards in its original production. We selected from an exhaustive list provided by the professor. I selected this play because of the playwright and the period. 

Strictly Dishonorable was one of the biggest hits of the 1929 Broadway season and launched its author, Preston Sturges, into a remarkable career as one of the pre-eminent American film directors of the mid-Twentieth century.

In keeping with the theme of this section of the website, I have included only the portion of my paper summarizing the play’s action, but I’ve retained some of the passages articulating my opinion that the play would be problematic in revival.

Looking back, I’m not entirely sure that judgement was valid, but the assignment required me to take a position. Now, I think that  clever director and some judicious rewrites could make it work. It’s a lovely little play in many ways, despite my criticisms.

Strictly Dishonorable by Preston Sturges

Set in “[t]he Italian speakeasy of Tomaso Antiovi on West 49th St. in New York city,” the action begins “at 11:41 p.m. on a Saturday evening in autumn”(4) in the late twenties. An engaged young couple, priggish, tyrannical Henry Greene and his fiancée, lovely and innocently unpretentious Isabelle Parry, come by mistake to this little bar. Isabelle’s family, the Parry’s of Yoakum, Mississippi, lost a fortune on their plantation, because “just when the cotton got high, women stopped wearing underwear” (39). She finds northern city life exhilarating and is not thrilled with Henry’s plan to live in West Orange “in a restricted neighborhood, near a playground…half a block from Mother’s” (18).

Also at the speakeasy is Judge Dempsey, a friendly tippler who winks at the Prohibition laws as he sips Old-Fashioneds. He lives in a room above Tomaso’s speak, where another tenant is Augustino (Gus) Caraffa, the Count di Ruvo, a handsome opera star and a notorious womanizer.

When Henry exits to move his illegally parked car, Gus, eager to make a new conquest, dances with the star-struck Isabelle. Henry returns and fulfills his role as bullying blusterer, berating Isabelle for “dancing with that lousy wop”(40). Enraged by his treatment of her and his insulting manner towards her new friends, Isabelle gives Henry his ring back, sending him back to West Orange where he “can tell them I’d rather scrub floors than be married to such a…such a…GENTLEMAN” (43).

The Judge and his friend, Mulligan the beat cop, conspire to have Henry tangled up in the legal system for the evening. Isabelle accepts Gus’ offer to stay on his living room couch for the night and, as they head upstairs, Isabelle comments that, “The Judge is afraid for me,” then asks Gus, “What are your intentions toward me?” to which Gus replies, with a smile, “Strictly dishonorable” (54).

The second act presents an unconventional seduction scene. Upon her arrival in Gus’ apartment, Isabelle collects evidence that the glamorous singer is exactly what she thought he was:

Isabelle: (Picking up a hairpin on love seat): I didn’t know women used hairpins anymore.

Gus: Probably my cleaning woman dropped it.

Isabelle: Probably. Is she blonde?

Gus: I…ah…never noticed…She wears a dustcap.

While Isabelle is examining ashtray, He sees photograph of woman on table next to love seat. He turns it down quickly.

Isabelle: (Pushing cigarette end from tray): Well, you ought to tell her to stop smoking your cigarettes. It doesn’t look nice to see the ashtrays all full of cigarette butts with…lip rouge on them.

Gus: Darling–are you jealous?

Isabelle: Me? No, just neat. (56)

Some minor complications ensue as Mulligan comes back, looking for the “kidnapped” Isabelle and the Judge tries various tactics to empower Isabelle in preserving her virtue. All that really happens, however, is this: Isabelle falls for Gus and decides to give herself to him and Gus, without understanding what is going on, falls for her and decides not to take advantage. His transition from lust to love takes place in what can only be called the “pajama scene”:

Gus: (Coming to Isabelle): Here are the p.j.’s and things. May I help you?

Isabelle: Uh-huh

Gus: (Looking dress over): Where does it unbutton?

Isabelle: You see where it unbuttons.

Gus: Shall I then?

He starts to unhook dress. When she lifts dress over shoulders, she starts to speak.

I used to love to have my clothes taken off when I was too little to know how.

He takes dress and hangs it on screen. She is now in teddy, stockings and shoes. She sits on arm of armchair, dropping stockings to below knees. He comes down, sits on seat, foot of divan and takes shoes and stockings off.

Isabelle: I used to wear a lot more clothes when I was little…and Mama wore more than I did…and Gramma wore more than all of us put together.

Stockings, garters and shoes are laid on a small seat at foot of divan. Gus puts slippers on.

Isabelle: Gramma said when she was a young girl, she wore three times as much as when I knew her–

Gus: Really.

He rises. She drops straps of teddy over her shoulders. He takes top of pajamas and pulls it over her head, teddy drops at her feet.

Isabelle: I’ll bet the men back in Gramma’s day used to get awfully impatient waiting for the women to get undressed… (She picks teddy up and places it on back of chair. Then she sits on arm of chair again)…to go swimming. But maybe they didn’t swim much in those days–

Gus has pajama pants. She slips her feet into them as he draws them up and over pajama coat.

Isabelle: I used to wear things like that when I was a little girl only they had feet in ’em. (Pajamas on, she rises, fixes her hair, then looks down at herself, slapping thighs of legs in protest) No, no, no–the top goes on the outside.

Gus (Drawing top out of pajama pants and laughing): I must patent this. (78-9)

After this extended seduction scene–carried out in all innocence on Isabelle’s part, at least, Gus makes his move not once but twice and is rebuffed–but reluctantly. Finally, she meets him in an embrace.

Isabelle: Oh, Gus, I am happy!

Gus: It is I who am so happy.

Isabelle: I love you.

Gus: But, darling, you are trembling. Are you then so afraid?

Isabelle: I’m a little bit afraid.

Gus: But you must not be. Life is beautiful…and its most beautiful moments are called…love. They are very rare, my Isabelle, such moments as this…to be accepted tenderly…and without fear. (80)

And then Isabelle starts crying and the light slowly dawns on Gus. Although he does not use the word, he realizes she is a virgin. (His phrasing: “But you are a baby!”) And he can’t do it–which Isabelle proceeds to take as an insult to her womanhood. He puts her to bed, gives her a teddy bear (!), and goes to sleep in the Judge’s apartment. She uses all those proverbial feminine wiles to get him to stay, but, with an effort of will, he leaves, telling her, “Now–hook the chain on the door, baby!” Isabelle has a tantrum as the curtain drops, tosses the teddy bear across the room and crying, “I’m not a baby! I’m not a baby!” (83)

I recount this scene in such detail because it seems to me to express the play’s greatest weakness, in relation to its production for contemporary audiences. On the one hand, it is a great scene. Both characters reach an epiphany. There is sex of the most interesting dramatic kind–the implied and inferred kind. And there is romance of the old-fashioned “head-over-heels” variety, which makes up in fun value what it lacks in believability. Perhaps, in allowing my reservations to dictate my own view of the show’s viability, I am falling into the trap of censoring expression rather than allowing the audience to decide for itself, but it is hard (at least for me) to read all of what goes on in those last pages of the second act and not get a bit queasy. It is provocative, but it is also naïve, cliched and more than a little dated in its attitude toward sex roles and female sexuality, though perhaps not more so than most romantic comedies of our own era. What is different, however, and what rankles, is the relegation of Isabelle’s sexual appeal to her girlish qualities. Gus comes off as a garden-variety male chauvinist. His attack of conscience is motivated not by a recognition of Isabelle as a woman, but as the act of “noble sacrifice” in the face of virtue. The implication is that her virtue, innocence and naivete are the qualities which appeal to him–and that these, therefore, are the essential qualities of any woman worthy of true love. And these are the very qualities which this scene clearly labels as child-like. At the same time, Isabelle’s childish breakdown at the end of the act makes her an unsympathetic collaborator in the fiction that her girlishness makes her sacrosanct, an object of veneration and, as we shall see in the third act, of love. She is so distinctly not a “modern” woman in those moments–not even modern in the context of what was common in that era of the flapper and women’s suffrage. Her behavior is something which might easily be redeemed in the third act if the playwright were writing that kind of play but, since he is not, she is not and, in fact, none of the values of mature love are celebrated at all.

Act three is equally slight in its complications. The Judge is trying to get Isabelle home to Mississippi, until Gus declares that he is in love with her and has sent a telegram to his mother in Italy, asking for permission to marry. As the second act reflects what seems to have been Sturges’ own life-long attitude toward women, this plot point is a telling self-revelation concerning his relationship with his own mother.

Isabelle thinks, meanwhile, that Gus wants her gone too and so agrees to meet with Henry and renew their engagement. Here we have the clearest statement of Isabelle’s liberation in the form of a recognition of society’s double-standard around sexual promiscuity:

Gus: Isabelle: I still have my virginity, if that’s what’s worrying you.

Henry: (Shocked) Isabelle!

Isabelle: Don’t be a hypocrite…that’s what you were thinking…though why they make so much fuss about it is more than I can understand.

Henry: (Thunderstruck) Fuss about it!

Isabelle: You heard me. As if it mattered to anybody but me. By the way, I forgot to ask you! Are you pure?

Henry: What? Why…

Isabelle: You needn’t bother to answer. I’m not curious.

Henry: It’s entirely different anyway.

Isabelle: Well, I don’t really know anything about it, so you may be right. (96-7)

Gus, having overcome his fear of commitment and in receipt of the requested permission, charges in on Isabelle’s reluctant reconciliation with Henry, but before she can walk out of his life forever, finds the courage to ask for a moment alone with her. He tells her that he had come to ask her to marry him.

Gus: Yes. Always, you see, I thought marriage was not for me. For a woman, such life would be…hell. Here a few months, then quick to Milan, a week at La Scala, then two, maybe three days at home, then a rotten trip to Spain…

Isabelle, who has been only to Excelsior Springs, West Orange, N.J., and New York, listens to this itinerary breathlessly. She dreamily contemplates the wonders of such a trip.

…one week in Barcelona, one week in Madrid, then off to South America for the season. It’s terrible!

Isabelle: Yes…it must be.

Gus: It is. It’s awful. So always I put behind me thoughts of marriage, so that some poor woman would not have to…share my sufferings.

Isabelle: That was very thoughtful of you. (100)

Again, Isabelle recognizes the double standard inherent in male attitudes toward women. It never occurs to Gus that a woman might enjoy the lifestyle that he loathes and that he, in fact, is more temperamentally suited to the maintenance of house-and-home than she might be. Yet her recognition and acknowledgement of the unfairness of the system is, at best, mildly ironic and hardly constitutes any liberation in the real sense of the word, especially when the denouement of the play is considered.

Despite Gus’ protestations of a “very real…very fine…very honorable love” (101), Isabelle does not believe him because “If you did [love me], you wouldn’t have left me…last night, with that stuffed teddy bear” (102). And she is serious! She actually walks out to go and be with Henry, a man she not only doesn’t love but clearly does not even respect–only to go straight to the Judge’s room to cry. He brings her back a page later and Gus and Isabelle reunite. She declares her love, they embrace, then break:

Gus: But I warn you–I must have four sons and seven daughters–

Judge: (Starting to exit) In that case, I’ll tell Henry not to wait.

So, we have a conventional, “happy” ending, complete with the promise of a wedding and a more expansive, international life for Isabelle–within the traditional role of wife and mother. Isabelle’s final tantrum is presumably intended to endear us to her as it apparently endears her to Gus. To me–and to most contemporary audiences, it acts only to reinforce the regressive ideology which Sturges seems to want to propagate: girlish equals appealing, the independent woman is attractive in inverse proportion to the extent to which she actually practices said independence.

If I could detect a single shred of Sturges’ later, finely honed satirical impulse directed toward the final image he presents us–a little caption or codicil which said “They lived happily ever after…or did they?”–I would without doubt find this play worthy of revival. As it is, there is much to like–but much that is problematic and, to my mind, unresolvable in the context of a straight revival. That doesn’t mean, however, that what works about the play is beyond redemption. With patience–and a good set of false teeth–even the cold hands of time can be turned back on a work with merit.