Convinced that his devoted wife, Daphne, is having an affair, conductor Sir Arthur de Carter envisions three ways of getting even while giving a concert. But each attempt at enacting his revenge goes horribly wrong.
Preston Sturges has been lionised by cinéastes, plagiarised by screenwriters and scrutinised by students. Yet he has never quite acquired the kudos of contemporaries like Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder and part of the reason for this accidental anonymity lies with the critical and commercial failure of this structurally ambitious black comedy that, ironically, many have come to see as his masterpiece.
Sturges first conceived The Symphony Story in 1932 and it was hurriedly revived following the postponement of The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949). Known as Improper Relations and Lover-in-Law at various stages of its production, it came to reflect Sturges's own (equally specious) insecurities regarding his relationship with actress Frances Ramsden, who was 24 years his junior. However, a back injury prevented her from taking a part that reached Linda Darnell via Gene Tierney, while Rex Harrison assumed the composite caricature of Sturges and Sir Thomas Beecham after James Mason discovered scheduling difficulties. Neither star was considered box office and Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck was hugely concerned that the average moviegoer wouldn't be able to follow the subtle shifts in perspective that accompanied Rossini's overture to Semiramide, Wagner's reconciliation theme from Tannhauser and Tchaikovsky's opening to Francesca da Rimini. Test screenings seemed to bear out his fears, with viewers either loving or loathing the dexterous blend of cultural satire, marital farce and unabashed slapstick. They were similarly divided on Harrison's deceptively easy switches from sneering and debonair to distraught and scheming and Darnell's ability to seem either devotedly innocent or coquettishly alluring depending on her husband's mood. So, Zanuck personally supervised the excision of 20 minutes' footage. But the film was dealt a decisive blow when Harrison's mistress, Carole Landis, committed suicide and Fox decided that it would be in bad taste to distribute a comedy about a potential murder while its male star was embroiled in such a tragic, adulterous scandal. Consequently, this bold, erudite and hilariously macabre farce eventually emerged without the usual fanfare and promptly flopped, causing Sturges to lose his touch and spend his remaining decade unfulfilled in Europe.