(U.S., William Wyler)
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At a Budapest orphanage Dr. Schultz (Beulah Bondi) instructs her wards that they ought to repay the charity on which they were raised by committing one good deed a day. When Dr. Schultz sends Luisa Ginglebusher (Maraget Sullavan) to work as an usherette at a movie theater, the wide-eyed orphan takes her advice to heart and looks for opportunities to do good. One snag in her naïve worldview is men – lots of leering lecherous men with only one thing on their minds. She doesn’t know what that thing is, but she knows it isn’t good. As a defense, she tells one persistent admirer (Cesar Romero) that she is married and grabs the first inoffensive looking man she can find to play her husband. Lucky for Luisa Detlaff (Reginald Owens) takes a fatherly interest in her and invites her to a party in the restaurant he works – kind of a Cinderella night for the girl. She is charmed and dazzled at the party, but those pesky men keep popping up. The most persistent is Konrad, a millionaire meat-packer played by Frank Morgan. He is unrelenting and, since it worked before, she tells him she is married. Konrad is crestfallen, but not defeated. He hatches a plot to raise her husband up so he can buy her all the things Konrad wants to, an indirect sort of sugar daddy arrangement. Also, and he doesn’t tell Luisa this, having her husband in his employ would allow him to send the man out of town on business so he can woo the lonely wife.
Of course Luisa doesn’t have a husband, but she sees her chance to do her assigned good deed for the day. Spending tens of thousands of dollars wouldn’t mean much to Konrad, but it could mean a miracle for someone else. Luisa decides to pick a lawyer’s name at random from the phonebook, Dr. Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), and tell Konrad he is her husband. From there this smart comedy of errors takes off as Konrad employs the stunned Sporum, Luisa sneaks out to see the results of her good deed, and, naturally falls in love with the oblivious man who believes he is being rewarded for his integrity and honesty.
While the story is charming on all levels, it is also devilishly edgy for a Hayes Code Era film. Konrad wants to have an affair with a married woman and is willing to employ her husband to make it happen. Also, in this early screenplay by Preston Sturges we see flashes of his later genius: the clever wordplay, witty one liners, groan-worthy puns and non sequiturs that oddly make sense. We also glimpse Sturges’ fiendish delight in subverting our expectations. For instance, the question we immediately ask is: how do we know Sporum, picked at random, is worthy of Luisa’s good deed. Most movies would have made him a saint, but Sturges pulls the rug from under us by making him a pompous jerk and, we suspect, a pretty bad legal advocate struggling to make ends meet. He isn’t a failure because no one wants an honest lawyer; he’s a failure because he is insufferable, prideful, and rash. The love of a woman though can make him a better man, a tired but effective narrative gimmick.
Margaret Sullavan has just the right mix of childish adolescent goofiness cloaking an emerging sexuality. We never feel as though she is insincere about … well, anything. She tackles every line and action with the weight and sincerity of teenager taking her first tentative steps in the outside world. And we willingly accept that she could fall in love with Marshall’s Dr. Sporum because she inspires something better in himself by compelling him to think about the people around him. And Sullavan isn’t alone; she is supported by a superb supporting cast, most noteworthy being Frank Morgan’s energetic portrayal of Konrad. His mumbled stuttering and high-pitched nervous laughs – all trademarks of a Frank Morgan performance – work well with Preston Sturges’s fast-paced dialogue.
What is most remarkable is Sturges and director William Wyler, with the help of Sullavan, Marshall, Morgan, and the rest of the cast, convert what could have been a seedy story of deception and (attempted) adultery into a charming comedic gem. This is further evidence that the much maligned Hayes Code probably inspired rather than squashed creativity in Hollywood.