These notes on Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours (1948) were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Unfaithfully Yours will screen as part of our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series highlighting films discussed in David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood. The February 4 screening begins at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of the Chazen Museum of Art.
By John Bennett
By 1948, the year Preston Sturges’ delightfully mean-spirited comedy Unfaithfully Yours was released, the glory days for the writer/director had ended. A playwright-turned-screenwriter, Sturges wrote finely crafted screenplays for snappy comedies like Easy Living (Leisen, 1937). In 1940, he began directing his own screenplays for Paramount, starting with the successful The Great McGinty. For the first half of the 40s, Sturges continued to direct his own screenplays, churning out successful, cynical slapstick satires at an astonishing rate, all of which are worth watching and the best of which include The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). By 1945, however, Paramount and Sturges parted ways, leaving the orphaned director searching for a studio where he could continue working. After making The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), a disappointing Harold Lloyd comeback made for the mercurial Howard Hughes, Sturges teamed up with 20th Century Fox to make Unfaithfully Yours, a wildly original comedy that, though not successful during its original release, has not lost its power to shock, confound, and delight.
“By all means, be vulgar!” exclaims Sir Alfred De Carter (brilliantly played by Rex Harrison), a renowned orchestra conductor, to a timid cymbalist during a rehearsal. Indeed, brassy vulgarity abounds in the narrative of this unusual comedy. Unfaithfully Yours opens with Sir Alfred returning to America from England. Waiting for him on the tarmac is his devoted wife, Daphne (played by the underrated Linda Darnell). Their reunion is tender, even passionate. But then Sir Alfred learns that his milquetoast brother-in-law (Rudy Vallee) had a detective follow Daphne during Sir Alfred’s absence. The detective’s report claims that Daphne spent a mysterious 38 minutes in the hotel room of Tony (Kurt Kreuger), Sir Alfred’s trusty young secretary. This news whips Sir Alfred into a rage on the day of a big concert he will be conducting. In the film’s wildly inventive coup de théâtre (to which David Bordwell draws much attention in his new book, Reinventing Hollywood), Sir Alfred has three devilish revenge fantasies while conducting three overtures. The concert is a huge success, but Sir Albert does not stay long enough to bask in the glory; he rushes back to his apartment to try to realize his dastardly fantasies…
Unfaithfully Yours is undoubtedly one of the great films about classical music. Like Sir Alfred, Sturges masterfully conducts excerpts of three pieces during the fantasy sequences—Rossini’s overture to Semiramide, Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser, and Tchaikovsky’s overture to Francesca di Rimini—revealing surprising qualities in the music through his inventive storytelling. In the first murderous fantasy sequence, Sir Alfred erupts into maniacal laughter at the overture’s most giddy passage, proving how well Sturges understood Rossini’s joyous bounce and thrilling crescendos. In the fantasy sequence in which Sir Alfred releases Daphne with ostentatious magnanimity, Sturges teases out something showy and pretentious in Wagner. When the fantasy ends, and we see the real, devoted Daphne tearing up at the beautiful music her husband is able to conduct, Sturges restores the overture’s grand majesty once more, making us feel moved by the same music we found so pompous and empty just moments before. Of course, much credit must go to musical director Alfred Newman. When Sir Alfred tries to realize his murderous plan and fails miserably at every stage, Newman arranges Rossini’s overture in such a way that is filled with amusing cartoon trumpet blares and timpani hits.
Sturges was one of American film’s most democratic directors; every fop and every floozy, every baroness and every bum gets to speak his or her snarky peace—and boy do they do it in style. Few writer/directors gave so many plum lines to their supporting players. Only in a Sturges film would a character named Detective Sweeney (Edgar Kennedy) turn out to be such an effusive classical music fan (“Nobody handles Handel like you handle Handel!” he gushes to Sir Alfred). Many members of Sturges’ dependable troop of character actors turn up in Unfaithfully Yours as well. Robert Grieg, as Sir Alfred’s cockney dressing room attendant, appeared in six Sturges films; Al Bridge, as the hotel detective, appeared in an astonishing ten films by the writer/director, a record surpassed only by Torben Meyer (Dr. Schultz), who appeared in eleven. The popular 30s crooner Rudy Vallee, who appeared in four Sturges films, takes on the thankless role of playing Sir Alfred’s stuffed-shirt brother-in-law who, humorously enough, professes his dislike of music. Barbara Lawrence, as Daphne’s sister, gets some great cynical throwaway lines as well. In the world of Unfaithfully Yours, nearly everyone is just a little rotten and just a little loveable, a quality that gives the film great comedic texture.
Ultimately, the plot structure of Unfaithfully Yours isn’t the film’s only unusual characteristic. Sturges’ comedy is one of the few Classical Hollywood films to take on the pettiness of the male ego and demolish the mythos surrounding the concept of “artistic genius” with such savagery. After the Semiramide overture has ended, Sir Albert’s associate, Hugo Standoff (played by the inimitable Lionel Stander affecting a convincing Russian accent) rushes to Sir Albert’s dressing room. He asks, in awe, “What did you have in your head? What visions of eternity?” Though he has masterfully conducted the piece, Sir Albert’s visions are petty and cruel. By the time the concert ends, Sir Alfred is a musical genius, adored by thousands of audience members; that same night, as he tries to realize his murderous fantasy, he’s simply “some jerk on the line” according to a phone operator who is perplexed after Sir Alfred accidentally kicks his phone off the receiver for the umpteenth time. Sturges isn’t interested in the agony and the ecstasy of a great artist. Instead, he quite brilliantly shows how a great artist can also be a grade-A jerk, a perspective that continues to feels as fresh and funny as the film’s surprising narrative structure.