Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees finds that gallows humor existed onscreen before Pulp Fiction.
Our review of Unfaithfully Yours (1948), published April 3rd, 2013, is also available.
Sir Alfred: Have you ever heard of Russian Roulette?
For a comedy by Preston Sturges, one of Hollywood's greatest comic writers and directors, Unfaithfully Yours has a very serious side. Mismarketed, dogged by scandal connected to its leading man, and quite simply too macabre a comedy for mainstream audiences of the time, it helped unseat Sturges from his position as one of the highest-paid men of his day and hastened his downfall; it would be his next-to-last Hollywood film. It's all the more distressing that the film exacted such a high price on its creator because it has finally come into its own. A commercial disaster on its initial release, Unfaithfully Yours can be recognized by post-Pulp Fiction audiences as a brilliant and perceptive comedy that was ahead of its time.
Facts of the Case
Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), the gifted symphony conductor, is in complete control of his life. He is admired far and wide as a great artist; he has an efficient secretary, Tony (Kurt Kreuger), to take care of the minutiae of daily life; and he has a gorgeous wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell, No Way Out), who adores him. So imagine his shock when his pompous brother-in-law, August (Rudy Vallee, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer), tells him that a detective caught Daphne cheating on him with Tony.
Shattered, Sir Alfred finds his thoughts turning to his wife while he conducts a symphony performance. As he leads the orchestra in three different compositions, he imagines three different ways that the inevitable scene with his wife will unfold. Will he murder her and frame Tony, forgive them both, or force a confrontation with the guilty pair at the point of a gun? But once Sir Alfred decides to make his fantasies into reality, he finds himself encountering unexpected obstacles.
It's easy to see why audiences in 1948 would not have known what to make of Unfaithfully Yours. In addition to Sturges's characteristic mixture of slapstick and sharp dialogue, it features an emphasis on highbrow orchestral music (one scene is almost entirely comprised of the symphony orchestra rehearsing) and a protagonist who daydreams about slashing his wife's throat with a straight razor. You can understand why audiences stayed away in droves. And in a cruel twist of fate, just before the film was released, Rex Harrison's unstable actress girlfriend committed suicide. Especially since many blamed Harrison (who was married at the time) for her death, the parallel must have sat very uneasily with many audience members. The studio scaled down advertising in the wake of the tragedy, essentially doing to the film what Sir Alfred plans to do to Daphne. Its doom was sealed.
Fortunately, with the passage of time has come perspective, and it's clear to twenty-first-century eyes that Unfaithfully Yours is a brilliant black comedy that suffered from bad timing. It's both a simple, universal story of jealousy and a richly layered commentary on a proliferation of subjects, everything from art and love and culture to the frustrations of trying to operate a cantankerous household appliance. The film contains an array of throwaway observations on dozens of subjects—even Hollywood, as when Sir Alfred tells Daphne about having seen a movie that "questioned the necessity of marriage for eight reels and then concluded it was essential in the ninth." There's an entire popular film genre summed up in one ruthless sentence. That's part of the genius of Sturges: He makes everything colorful, not just the lead character.
In this case, though, that leading character—egotistical, hot-tempered, and imaginative—is the personality that shapes the film. It's really his story, and that's certainly how he sees it; even his wife is primarily an adjunct to the Sir Alfred Story. From the very first scene, when his family and staff are badgering an airport employee for news of his flight, he is on everyone's mind. He enjoys performing for others in life just as he does on stage, as when he and Daphne enact a cooingly intimate scene of meeting in front of the others once his plane does set down ("I really don't think they ought to do this in public," says August uncomfortably). He's always conscious of appearances, even when he's cursing out August: When he thunders "Get out of here and never speak to me again," he doesn't stop there, but keeps right on going with "unless it's in some public place where your silence might cause comment or embarrassment to our wives!" When we see his fantasies unfold, they are all about his actions and how they demonstrate his brilliance or nobility or courage. In his daydreams, Daphne and Tony are just two more props—or musical instruments—with which he performs.
It's particularly satisfying, then, to find that Sir Alfred, like us mere mortals, is subject to the unexpected frustrations that arise when he tries to put his fantasies into action. The scene in which Alfred (so cunning and efficient in his daydream) wrecks an entire hotel room in an effort to stage his wife's murder is surely one of the finest slapstick set pieces of its era. Performance has its place, but when Sir Alfred tries to take on this particular role, it just doesn't fit. Even he has his limitations, which is one of the lessons he learns over the course of the story.
The film benefits enormously from Rex Harrison's presence as the egotistical heart and neurotic soul of the story. Sturges's dazzling dialogue has rarely sounded better than when delivered in Rex Harrison's precise and cutting British tones. Although James Mason was actually the first choice for the role of Sir Alfred, he lacks a certain peevish quality that Harrison shares with frequent Sturges leading man Joel McCrea (Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story), which somehow enhances the insanity of the goings-on. His Sir Alfred is a man who relishes speaking more eloquently, more insultingly, and often simply more quickly than everyone else; his speech is another kind of music, although a distinctly dissonant one when his temper is aroused. Harrison is also convincing as a conductor—he trained long and hard to learn the right moves—and has a wonderfully manic quality that makes the whole film hum. I really can't imagine the film working without him.
Almost without exception, the remainder of the roles are superbly cast as well—no surprise to any fan of Sturges's other work (although on second thought, considering how much studio head Darryl F. Zanuck interfered with the film, perhaps it is surprising). Opposite Harrison, Linda Darnell can't help but seem a bit out of her league, but that actually works perfectly for her character, who loves the prickly Sir Alfred without being his intellectual equal. All melting sweetness, her Daphne is the natural counterpart for the great artist whose ego needs to be soothed at all times. In the fantasy sequences, Darnell gets to put on different personas as alternate Daphnes, but my favorite part of her performance takes place in the last act of the film, when her dismay at her husband's mysterious fits of temper leads her to show a little irritation and wifely irreverence toward the great artist. She becomes real to me in these scenes, where before she really did seem to be a creature summoned up by her husband's egotistical imagination.
Among the rest of the ensemble, Rudy Vallee is highly enjoyable in what is practically a reprise of his bigger role in Sturges's The Palm Beach Story (1942), even down to his mannerism of fussing with his pince-nez. As August's sassy young minx of a wife, Barbara Lawrence (who also played Linda Darnell's sister in A Letter to Three Wives) brings zest to the film. Her take on the action is a dose of blunt reality; she seems to be speaking for us sometimes, as when she provides cynical commentary on the de Carters' airport love scene. Regulars from Sturges's informal "stock company" include Julius Tannen, Alan Bridge, and Torben Meyer; Lionel Stander and Edgar Kennedy had previously appeared in Sturges's The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.
I expect great things from a Criterion release, and this one does not disappoint. The newly restored high-definition digital transfer is probably the cleanest I have ever seen a film from this era; dirt and damage are practically nonexistent, and the black-and-white picture is bold, with rich depth of grayscale tones and remarkable crispness (except, of course, in the soft-focus closeups on leading lady Darnell). Even in the virtuosic shot that takes us right up into the pupil of Sir Alfred's eye, there's nothing to jar us out of the moment. The mono sound is clean by and large, but there is sometimes a slurring hiss that accompanies sibilants in dialogue. The technical limitations of the day are evident, but even in mono sound the orchestral selections—expertly conducted (offscreen) by legendary composer Alfred Newman—and the goofy comedic sound effects alike emerge with clarity and surprising punch.
The extras offer an abundance of perspectives and background information on the film. Monty Python's Terry Jones appears in a 14-minute monologue, talking a mile a minute about his thoughts on the film, his experience of having discovered Sturges as a filmgoer, and his own theories as to why the film failed upon its initial release. A more relaxed perspective is offered by Sturges's widow, Sandy Sturges, who takes the screen for a 25-minute interview and fills in more personal background on Sturges, his working relationships with Harrison and Zanuck, and her unusual courtship with Sturges. Her reminiscences helped considerably to flesh out my mental picture of Sturges as both man and artist (and she also shares an anecdote about Rex Harrison that helps explain where he got the nickname Sexy Rexy). The gallery of production memos and stills leans heavily toward the paperwork, which is testimony to the constant intrusion of Zanuck into the filmmaking process. We even see the memo in which he tersely informs the director that he himself is going to seize the unfinished film from him and edit it. It's the beginning of the end of Sturges's time in Hollywood, and for that reason rather unsettling.
The audio commentary by film scholars Diane Jacobs, Brian Henderson, and James Harvey (author of the entertaining book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges) may be of greatest interest to fans of the complete Sturges oeuvre, since the speakers spend a lot of time looking at the bigger picture: recurring themes and tendencies in Sturges's work, the influence (or lack thereof) of Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra, connections and differences between this and other Sturges film, and the like. One of the more unusual features of the commentary is that the speakers sometimes disagree with each other—always politely, but it's refreshing to hear them arguing different perspectives. On that subject, I'll point out that I disagree with all of the speakers when they assert that Daphne is an enigmatic character and that the film never allows us to truly know her; I feel that the speakers are creating complications where none exist, much like film critic Jonathan Lethem in his essay on the film (included in a fold-out insert). On the other hand, the commentary does provide some intriguing information on the autobiographical components of the film, the clever use of particular musical compositions to shape Sir Alfred's different fantasies, and even a reading from a censored piece of dialogue about Sir Alfred's previous marriages. There's good meat here along with the more abstract discussion.
As with previous Sturges titles like The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels, Criterion has released a disc for classic film lovers to treasure; it's just a shame that they didn't release The Palm Beach Story too so that it could get the same grade-A treatment.
A word of warning: Don't confuse this classic with its 1984 remake starring Dudley Moore. In this case, as in so many others, there's no beating the original. Whether you're a Sturges completist or a complete newcomer to this gifted writer-director, Unfaithfully Yours is a murderously good time.
Contrary to Sir Alfred's opinion, guilt and innocence are for a court to decide, not a conductor. And this court finds the defendant innocent on all counts.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Sturges Scholars James Harvey, Brian Henderson, and Diane Jacobs
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