I just discovered something of trivial interest. In 1948 George Orwell wrote his masterpiece 1984, picking the year by reversing the last two digits. In the same year Preston Sturges wrote, produced, and directed this … and in 1984 it was remade with Dudley Moore in the Rex Harrison part!
Go see this one. Avoid the re-make like the plague.
Preston Sturges is one of my favorite directors. He was a prolific writer in the ’30s, and directed his first film in 1940. Between then and 1944 he made an astonishing seven comedies, and all but one of them were fantastic: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July (only so-so, by Sturges’s standards), The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels (my personal favorite), The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. His career has been described as meteoric, and it was, and unfortunately a meteor flashes for only a brief time before it crashes. He got involved with Howard Hughes, and things started falling apart. He made an ill-advised drama, The Great Moment, and Harold Lloyd’s last film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, then had one last flash of genius, this one, in ’48.
Rex Harrison dominates the film in a performance of bombastic swagger and comic genius. He’s an orchestra conductor, brilliant, mercurial, temperamental, who brings total passion to everything he does. In the history of the world there has been no greater love than he feels for his younger wife. But when the worm of doubt invades his mind, like Othello, he’s just as passionate in his anger. While conducting a concert, he plots his revenge against his imagined cuckolding during one movement (Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide), his magnanimous forgiveness in the second (Tannhauser), and a daring game of Russian roulette with his rival in the third. He is at first ingenious, in the second magnanimous, and in the third fearless … until he shoots himself in the head! Oops, let’s don’t do that! Each fantasy is introduced by a long dolly-in shot that starts back among the bass fiddles and closes in on his eye, until we swirl down the pupil and into his mind, where, of course, everything is about him, and he has a very high opinion of himself. (In 1948 this was a most difficult shot to accomplish, and it was groundbreaking.) Of course, he’s egomaniacal, but that’s part of the job description for leading an orchestra, I would think.
This is all great fun, but the real fun begins when he decides on scenario #1, to kill his wife. The theme of Semiramide plays behind him as he tries to put his elaborate and ingenious plot into action … and promptly, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. The music stops and starts. Nothing goes according to plan. It’s slapstick, and very well done. In the end, of course, everything turns out all right.
The dialogue is sparkling and witty and rapid-fire, as in all the best screwball comedies. Sturges’s people are never at a loss as to how to express themselves. As a writer, he’s at his best exposing human folly, and this is one of his best scripts. As a director he is almost as good, and has the nerve to run through almost the entire Semiramide in rehearsal, which could have bogged the film down in lesser hands, but here is a fascinating to the themes of the movie and of the music itself.