Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In one of his last stabs at the screen after his string of great hits at Paramount, the
genius comedy writer-director Preston Sturges concocted this drop-dead funny piece of
insanity under Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox. It starred Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell and
reunited much of Sturges' old crowd of character actors. A few critics thought Sturges
was several degrees short of his top form ... something that viewers won't stop laughing
to worry about.
Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison) is a high-strung concert conductor, an
international celebrity at the height of his powers. Among his retinue is an idiotic
millionaire brother-in-law named August Henshler (Rudy Vallee, of course) who misinterprets
one of Alfred's remarks and hires a detective (Edgar Kennedy) to investigate Alfred's devoted
and loving wife Daphne (Linda Darnell). Sir Alfred drowns Daphne with attention and luxuries
but the detective's report inflames his jealous imagination. He imagines various scenarios
of murder and romantic revenge while conducting several classic pieces on-stage. Not only
does this reverse therapy inspire Sir Alfred to risk a real murder plot, his volatile
emotions improve his conducting as well!
It's more than slightly exasperating when the public rejects a great movie; it is hard to
imagine any audience not being captivated by Unfaithfully Yours. The fault was bad
promotion and marketing by the studio. According to Sturges' widow Sandy Nagel Sturges
(interviewed on this disc), just before the film was scheduled to open starlet Carole Landis
died of a drug overdose and was linked to Rex Harrison in the scandal sheets. Fox panicked
and promoted the movie as a murder mystery.
It's also quite possible that the public of 1948 didn't respond well to Unfaithfully
Yours' idea of comedy, which is essentially black comedy. Laughing like a maniac, Sir
Alfred slashes Daphne with his razor, a shocking (off screen) moment that many might
think in terrible taste. The only comparison can be found in art films unseen by the
regular public. Luis Buñuel's 1955 The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz
has a vaguely similar theme.
But unpredictability is all the fun of Unfaithfully Yours, which allows a pompous
master of the arts to be a madman at heart while his inspirational music lifts the spirits
of those around him. Sturges reserves a lot of screen time and considerable affection
to show a gravel-voiced detective (Edgar Kennedy) and a doddering tailor (Julius Tannen)
appreciating Sir Alfred's musical gifts. Kennedy gets the best lines in the picture: "You
handle Handel like nobody handles Handel. And your Delius - delirious!"
The great Sir Alfred has an Achilles heel, a limitless jealousy over his beautiful wife
Daphne. One suspicious observation from the detective and Alfred is imagining that every
adoring glance and loving word from Daphne disguise her sordid affair with his young and
handsome personal secretary, Anthony (Kurt Kreuger). Inspired by his own concerts, Alfred
imagines taking a bloody revenge on them both. He casts himself as the sardonic hero of
elaborate murder scenarios, exposing Daphne's treachery and torturing both her and her
lover (imagined as a sniveling coward, of course).
It's the old story of distrust between the sexes with romance as a game of deception, in
this case, self-deception. Alfred loves Daphne but is incapable of really knowing her
except as an extension of his own romantic ideals. Unfaithfully Yours is the story
of a warped mind in a comedy arena - as a horror film it might turn out to be something
like Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.
Amateur inventor Preston Sturges concocts some supremely witty visual devices. He lets
us know that the conductor's murders are only daydreams by literally trucking into Rex
Harrison's head. An ambitious crane move travels from a long shot of a crowded concert hall
right up into the blackness of Sir Alfred's left pupil. It's a visual trick we associate
with later, more self-conscious gimmicks in movies like Nicholas Roeg's Performance.
Each classical performance serves as the background score for a particular imagined fantasy,
sort of a Fantasia of murder, or murder-suicide, depending on Sir Alfred's mood. As
in a music video, the dream scenarios conform to the contours of pieces by Rossini,
Tchaikowsky and Wagner.
The only hint of excess in the movie is the clash between intellectual wit and outright
slapstick. The story's conflict takes place almost entirely within Sir Alfred's subconscious,
where his murderous daydreams share space with his amorous quote about Daphne being created
by a thousand poets dreaming for a thousand years. The film's devotion to the ecstasy of
love is an ideal Daphne or any other mortal female would find tough to live up to.
That high-toned content plays out in Sturges' familiar universe of pushy associates and
annoying relatives, all dishing out overlapping fast-talk laden with double-entendre
zingers and silly puns. The soundtrack reaches for additional laughs by overdoing comical
sound effects. Using a loud audio effect when the tightwad Rudy Vallee character opens
and closes his wallet is amusing, but Sturges assigns exaggerated noises to everything Sir
Alfred comes in contact with. The gag belongs in the universe of The Three Stooges.
The best set piece is an inspired comic scene patterned after the work of Sturges' hero
Harold Lloyd. We've already seen Sir Alfred rig a diabolically clever murder trap in
one of his fantasies. When he tries to put it into action the movie becomes a comic
discourse on the way elaborate plans go awry in real life. Sir Alfred is defeated
by chairs, telephones, and razors. He imagines himself a criminal mastermind but can't
even tell his hi-tech home acetate recorder from a box of party games. He's dismantled by
his own ego and we get to enjoy the wreckage. Sturges knows exactly how to milk the comedy Ð
we anticipate each step in Alfred's humiliation. Sturges cuts back to the hieroglyphic-like
printed instructions for the recording device four or five times, and gets a bigger laugh
with each repetition.
Rex Harrison is perfect as the insanely jealous husband and Linda Darnell appropriately
dreamy as the object of his affections. Standouts in the cast are Lionel Stander as Sir
Alfred's crusty Russian manager and Barbara Lawrence as Daphne's cynical sister. They
all do well with some of the most complicated comedy lines ever heard.
Criterion's DVD of Unfaithfully Yours looks great. The B&W cinematography is as sharp
as a tack and the sound recording manages to grab both the impossibly fast dialogue and the
nuances of the concert scenes.
DVD producer Johanna Schiller conducts an impressive array of extras. Three Sturges scholars
gang up on the commentary, providing multiple points of view on the film and its place in
the hyphenate's career. Ex-Python Terry Jones offers a spoiler-laden 'video introduction'
that should be avoided until one has seen the movie, which prompts Savant to ask why it
can't be listed as an appreciation instead. Preston Sturges' widow Sandy also appears in
a new video interview. She's a delightful lady who gets to the core of his personality and
his clash with Darryl F. Zanuck, and offers convincing reasons why Unfaithfully Yours
was not a big hit. Every audience I've ever seen the film with has gone into hysterics.
The original trailer is a dismal item that makes the film look like an unfocused hodge-podge
("It's five movies in one!"). There's also a gallery of stills and fascinating production
correspondence documenting Darryl Zanuck's interference, which reportedly intimidated
Sturges to no end. Jonathan Lethem's liner essay is a concise and thoughtful overview of
this hugely enjoyable film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Unfaithfully Yours rates:
Supplements: trailer, still and production document gallery, interview with Sandy Nagel
Sturges, Terry Jones introduction, commentary with critics James Harvey, Brian Henderson and
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 26, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson