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.
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 – 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: