James M. Cain may be best known for hard-boiled tales of lust and murder, but he also liked opera (which, if you think about it, are pretty much hard-boiled tales of lust and murder) and wrote several comedic stories. One of them is Career in C Major adapted for the screen twice (well, once – the second film is a remake of the first): Wife, Husband and Friend (1939) and Everybody Does It (1949).
Leonard Borland (Paul Douglas) co-owns a wrecking company with Mike Craig (Millard Mitchell). Business is not so good, but he’s married to a very wealthy socialite and doesn’t want to live off of her family wealth. Doris Borland (Celeste Holm) has always dreamed of becoming a professional singer. The trouble is that she’s not all that good and no one’s ever told her this. According to her father, Major Blair (Charles Coburn), Doris comes from a long line of “frustrated sopranos.” Doris tried to become a singer five years previously, without outstanding success, but it seems to have caused marital difficulties and she gave it up. But after attending an opera, her ambitions seize her again and she starts vocal training and plans to give a concert.
Leonard flat-out says she won’t do it and is a “lousy singer” and she responds that if it hadn’t been for him making her give up her career before, she could have been a star already. Doris is encouraged by her fawning teacher, her friends and her mother (Lucile Watson). Utterly defeated, Leonard makes plans to rent a hall and he and Mike Craig beg, bribe and blackmail all his costumers and friends into attending.
But also attending is a real opera star, Cecil Carver (Linda Darnell), who is on the hunt for a tall baritone (she complains that all the baritones seem to be shrinking) and when she sees Leonard – definitely a hulk of a man – she likes what she sees. Leonard is anxious to hear a professional’s opinion about his wife’s chance of success and Cecil offers to give him one, in her apartment, in a slinky gown. She admits that his wife has a perfectly fine voice, but not the kind that will amount to much. But just before he leaves she discovers, quite by accident, that he is the one who has a perfectly splendid voice, though he never knew it and he takes quite a but of convincing. His singing tends to cause glass to break and her mirror does not survive the evening.
She convinces him that she could teach him how to sing with the argument that it would be the best lesson in the world for his wife to learn that it is actually her husband who has the great voice and could have the career. He goes along with it out of desperation, but his plan is, to say the least, pretty hapless and guaranteed to cause mayhem.
It’s not a bad comedy at all, but the best part of the film is by far the ending, with laugh-out-loud slapstick meeting opera as Leonard makes his operatic debut. He’s got a bad case of stage fright and everyone – Cecil, the acerbic conductor who always is making snide comments, the stage-manager – separately give him pills and various forms of calming medicine until he’s as high as a kite. His entrance on stage is, to say the least, unforgettable.
The cast is fun. Celeste Holm plays more of a bubble-brain than usual, a socialite in need of a dose of reality. Douglas is her well-meaning, but hapless husband who looks like a mug and sings like a Greek god. Linda Darnell vamps it up in a remarkably persistent attempt to woo Douglas. And Charles Coburn is a somewhat desperate crank, hiding in the pantry to get away from his wife and daughter’s music talk and issuing dire warnings to Douglas about letting women have their way.
Celeste Holm is the only actor who does her own singing. Douglas and Darnell are dubbed, but they do a creditable job of lip syncing. This film actually offers an excellent example of something I think modern movie musicals could learn from: the difference between a pretty voice and a spectacular one. All you have to do is listen to Holm and the opera singer dubbing for Darnell (Helen Spann) to hear the difference…though one wonders if Holm had to do anything to keep herself from sounding too good or if she just knew that her voice would not be up to operatic standards.
At the beginning of the film, I did have some reservations about the fact that Leonard is apparently trying to keep Doris from having a career, but ultimately it’s not about that. It’s about delusion. But, of course, if Leonard had just supported his wife and kept quiet, she would have found it out for herself and all would have been well much earlier. At the beginning of the film, they are a couple at cross purposes who both end up letting their singing get in the way of their marriage.
Everybody Does It was made to capitalize on the spectacular success of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives in 1949, which starred Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas are one of three married couples. Celeste Holm, ironically enough, provided the voice for the never-seen Addie Ross, who tries to steal Douglas away from Darnell.
The opera that Leonard and Cecil star in is called “L’Amoure di Fatima,” which is actually a fake opera with key songs and one scene composed by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, best known for his music for classic guitar.