“Unfaithfully Yours” (1948)

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I never said it was a light comedy …

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I have a weakness for Hollywood iconoclasts, and Preston Sturges was one of the biggest iconoclasts of the old studio system. Like Ernst Lubitsch, Sturges was allowed to put themes and scenes into his films that few other directors or writers had the freedom to do; of Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), where Betty Hutton’s character is impregnated by a mystery man after a night of drunken revels and goes on to birth sextuplets, film critic James Agee famously said “the Hays office must have been raped in its sleep” to have allowed such risqué content.

Unfaithfully Yours is a bit like that — it has scenes that you won’t see in any other Hollywood film of the era, because no one else would have been allowed to film those scenes. Was Sturges a drinking buddy of Joe Breen’s? Did his writing seem innocuous on the page but play very differently in front of the cameras? Did his bosses tell Breen to lay off because Sturges was making pots of money for them? Nobody knows, but we’re all happy he managed it.

I filed this under “dark comedies” because, make no mistake, this film is dark. Hot-tempered conductor Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) becomes convinced that his much younger wife (Linda Darnell) is cheating on him and, during a concert, he imagines three different scenarios for how he’s going to handle the situation, only to have each of them go hilariously awry when he tries to put them into practice in real life.

Harrison gets a lot of praise for his acting in this film but to me Darnell has the more difficult role. She plays the real Daphne — a doting but confused young wife who doesn’t understand why her ardent husband is suddenly rejecting her — plus three additional adulterous versions that Harrison’s character conjures up in his head during his fantasies. Darnell is able to play these distinct characters with panache and make all of them believable while never letting the audience lose sight of what Daphne is really like. It’s a bravura performance.

The film opens with a signature Sturges scene of multiple characters talking over each other as they wait for Sir Alfred’s delayed plane to land in New York. Character actor Lionel Stander plays Alfred’s Russian manager, rolling the R’s of his accent with great relish, while anxious bride Daphne (Darnell) begs for information about her husband’s flight. Sturges regular Rudy Vallee appears as Alfred’s prissy brother-in-law August, playing a character very similar to the one he played in The Palm Beach Story (1942). Daphne’s younger sister Barbara (Barbara Lawrence) is unhappily married to August. Sir Alfred’s handsome young secretary, Tony (Kurt Kreuger), hovers nearby. To everyone’s relief, Sir Alfred lands safely and, after Alfred’s passionate reunion with Daphne, they all return to the New York hotel where they live so Alfred can prepare for a final rehearsal before that evening’s concert.

Daphne and Alfred try to find time to “nap” (ahem), but everyone else demands their attention. As Alfred dresses, August tells him that although he, August, was called away from New York to attend his hypochondriac mother in Palm Beach, he did not fail to “keep an eye on Daphne” as Alfred asked him to do. Alfred is first confused and then outraged when it turns out that August’s idea of “keeping an eye” on someone is to hire a detective. When August hands Alfred the report, Alfred tears it into pieces, throws it into a trash can, and kicks the trash can into the hallway.

The scene is a bit over the top, to say the least — especially since Alfred tears August’s suit coat in his fit of rage — but it serves the dual purposes of establishing that Alfred has a hot temper and that he may not be quite as secure in his beautiful young wife’s love as he professes. Still fuming, Alfred encourages Daphne to buy herself a new dress (though she insists she doesn’t need any more dresses) and meet him for lunch after rehearsal.

The rehearsal scene is quite long and they play almost all of one of the most important pieces of music that will be used throughout the film — Rossini’s overture to his opera Semiramide. If it isn’t familiar to you before seeing the film, it will be instantly recognizable after you do. The scene establishes both Alfred’s talent as a conductor and his easy rapport with the orchestra, which is played by real-life musicians. It also gets the audience familiar with the music that will be the background to the most extended and bleak of Alfred’s revenge fantasies.

As Alfred prepares to meet his wife for lunch, the hotel detective (played by another familiar member of the Sturges stock company, Al Bridge) shows up with the ripped-up detective’s report painstakingly pieced back together. Alfred lights it on fire and throws it into another wastebasket, only to set his entire dressing room on fire. This is another important piece of information about Alfred: he’s both impulsive and clumsy, a potentially dangerous combination. He phones Daphne to have Tony take her to the restaurant for lunch and he’ll meet them there.

At the restaurant, Alfred discovers that August and Barbara are sitting on the opposite side of the room from Daphne and Tony, but Daphne doesn’t seem to know why. Spotting the other couple, Alfred weaves his way to their table to demand that August give him the business card for the detective he hired so Alfred can destroy the original of the unwanted report.

Still enraged by the report, Alfred charges into the detective’s office and begins shouting at him, only to discover that he’s shouting at the tailor from the shop next door, who agreed to answer the phone while Sweeney stepped out. Sweeney finally returns, and he’s played by legendary comic foil Edgar Kennedy. (As a side note, this part was almost certainly originally written for Sturges regular William Demarest, but he and Sturges had had a falling-out, so the part went to Kennedy instead.) Sweeney, it turns out, is not only a private detective, he’s Sir Alfred’s biggest fan. Alfred is almost embarrassed to be angry with him, but he eventually works up a head of steam as Sweeney lets slip two damning facts: Daphne left her room late at night in her bathrobe and spent 38 minutes in room 3406. He tears up the report with Sweeney’s encouragement — Sweeney has his own sad tale of finding out the truth about his unfaithful wife. Alfred storms out, only to return a moment later to hand tickets for that night’s sold-out concert to the grateful Sweeney.

Shaken by the encounter, Alfred disappears for the rest of the afternoon and finally returns to the hotel just in time to get ready for the concert. Unable to stop himself, he goes down to 3406 and discovers that the room belongs to Tony, his young, handsome, blond secretary. Now convinced that Daphne must be cheating on him, he picks a fight with her, wrecks the dress she was planning to wear, and leaves in a huff.

At the concert hall, Sir Alfred begins to conduct Rossini’s overture as the camera zooms into his eye, signaling that we are about to enter one of his fantasies. In it, Daphne is a sly seductress who’s enjoying her secret affair with Tony, so Alfred concocts an elaborate plot that involves a home recording machine, Daphne in her purple dress “with the plumes at the hips,” and perfect timing on Alfred’s part down to the second. At just the right moment, Alfred seizes Daphne and slashes her to death with his straight razor while he laughs maniacally.

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This still may appear seductive, but it’s of Daphne’s corpse shortly after Alfred (imagines that he) murders her.

And this is the point, dear reader, at which you just might pause the video and say, What the hell, Insufferable Movie Snob? How is this funny? I thought this was a comedy!

And my response is, yes, the film is ultimately a comedy, but it’s a noir comedy, so the murder scene is played absolutely straight, with chilling results. I think there are two reasons why. One, the whole sequence needs to be plausible and play out like clockwork so its failure later in the film is even funnier by contrast. Two, I think the scene is designed to make the audience lose sympathy for Sir Alfred so that the slapstick humiliations he endures at the end feel like just punishment for suspecting his innocent wife.

As the sequence returns to reality, the concertgoers are enraptured. Daphne is so enthusiastic with her applause that she accidentally knocks her opera glasses, Barbara’s opera glasses, and August’s pince-nez onto the concertgoers below. Alfred feels a moment of affection for her, so his fantasy during Wagner’s Tannhauser overture is that he forgives her and Tony for falling in love and writes her a very large check so they can marry and be happy. (Sharp-eared moviegoers may end up singing Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny’s duet from “What’s Opera, Doc?” since it’s set to the same piece of music.)

Back in reality,
Daphne is enraptured and insists on going backstage to see Alfred before he conducts the last piece, Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini,” but unfortunately she’s accompanied by Tony, which reminds Alfred of why he’s so angry and triggers his third fantasy, of forcing the cowardly Tony to play a game of Russian Roulette with the pistol Alfred keeps in his desk.

At the conclusion of the concert, the audience roars to its feet, but after one last infuriated glance at Daphne and Tony, Alfred slips away to the hotel to try and make his murderous first fantasy into reality. Unfortunately for him, it turns into a slapstick farce that destroys the apartment as he searches for the recorder, knocks over the telephone, breaks all of the chairs, and contends with the Simplicitas recorder — so simple, it practically works itself!

This scene is when the duplication and repetition of the previous scenes and themes really begins to pay off. As Alfred attempts to re-enact the murder plot of his fantasy, the soundtrack mocks him with comic variaunfaithfullyyours5tions on Rossini’s overture until the entire apartment is in shambles.

Daphne returns home to find Alfred sitting in the ruins and though she’s still angry with him, she tries to help him up and get the room straightened up. When he slyly tells her that he can’t take her dancing tonight, she says, “Why, who are you going with?” Every one of her loving overtures to him is rejected, but she just keeps trying. Her tone as she tries to clean up his path of destruction will be familiar to every married person as she says things like, “And now you’ve probably broken your glasses … you have.”

Heart softened by her caring, Alfred tries to re-enact the check-writing and Russian Roulette scenes with the same dismal results because, of course, he’s had it wrong all along — it’s Daphne’s sister Barbara who’s been having the affair with Tony, not Daphne, as she finally confides to him. She was looking for Barbara in Tony’s room, and Sweeney unwittingly trapped her in there by herself. Feeling foolish, Alfred pledges to take her dancing after all, and says that her purple dress with the plumes at the hips will be a “purple lesson” to him to never doubt her love again.

This is the most tightly plotted of any Sturges film, probably thanks to the mystery aspect of whether or not Daphne is really being unfaithful. Most of his films are quite meandering and he had a habit of writing himself into a corner, most notably in The Palm Beach Story, where he had to write a frame story with identical twins in order to get himself out of an unsolvable dilemma. I think the tighter plot works to this film’s benefit, because the comedy of it depends so much on repetition and restatement. You may find yourself repeating phrases like “the purple one … with the plumes at the hips” or “a nice hot bath” after hearing them used and re-used so many times in the course of the film, but they all pay off in the end.

Sturges was one of the most popular and successful filmmakers of the 1940s, but this film flopped, and no one is quite sure why. The sweeping changes in tone probably didn’t help — I can imagine that some filmgoers left and demanded their money back after the brutal murder scene. Another complication was that star Rex Harrison was caught up in a major scandal after his ex-lover Carole Landis committed suicide shortly after he broke up with her, so audiences may have been uncomfortable at seeing him as a romantic lead. Unfortunately for Sturges, the financial failure of this film led the studio to supervise him more closely, which meant he also lost that characteristic Sturges “touch” that audiences loved, and he only directed two more films (one of them in France) before his death in 1959. His hot streak as the writer, director, and producer of his own films lasted for a mere eight years.

A final note: most of the comedy of Sturges’ films holds up well, but I do feel that I need to caution you that his use of African-American characters has not aged well. At all. This film doesn’t have any, but The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels (1941) feature some pretty rank stereotypes enacted by Sturges regulars Fred “Snowflake” Toones and Charles R. Moore. If you see a Black actor or actress in a Sturges film, be prepared to cringe a little at how they had to act in order to receive their paycheck.

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Posted on October 22, 2016, in Movies, Weekend Movie Club. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I haven’t seen this one, but I’ll have to check it out! I’m a Sturges fan too, and I love dark comedies, especially the ones from this era. Great post! ❤️

  2. Quantum Hairball

    Maybe it flopped because it’s not terribly entertaining. The dialogue is smartly written, the acting well done, but the narrative is only mildly engaging and the laughs are few. The idea of a successful and honorable man losing his mind out of mistaken jealousy could be a funny or intriguing one but is it here? I get the feeling Sturges wrote this in one sitting. I didn’t dislike it, enjoyed parts, but I see no reason to recommend it.

    • Entertainment always comes down to a matter of taste. I end up laughing hysterically at this film every time, so I wouldn’t say it’s a universal that there are only a few laughs. Did you really not laugh when Daphne says she used to play Russian Roulette all the time with her father? Or when Alfred says, “Why are you forever trying to put me into a hot bath? I begin to find it sinister!”

      • Quantum Hairball

        Can’t say I remember particular lines I laughed at and I didn’t mean to come off as speaking for anyone but myself, just that I could see why the movie wasn’t well received. If you found the movie hysterical then it was hysterical; I just didn’t find it that funny. What that says about me and my camp and you and yours I don’t know though it’ might be interesting to see how it breaks down.

  3. I love this movie, and find it extremely clever. The precision timing of every actor in it is a joy to see. Why was it a flop? History is littered with fine films which were badly timed or badly promoted, not badly made.

    My own take is that the dark sections pull a suspense string in our brains, which makes the slapstick of Harrison’s character trying to carry out his nefarious plan all the funnier, as we get the relief of (in my case, at least) realizing that this was a jealousy fueled fantasy, and he really doesn’t want to do away with her.

    From our 2016 sensibilities, this is a very dark look, but at the time, it was acceptable hyperbole, considering how often people were punched, slapped, hit with objects, and in the case of women, actually spanked. I am sure that in the cultural context, many moviegoers would take the attitude that his homicidal fantasies were an index of how much he loved her, since this is a misconception that lingers to this day.

    • I’m not sure the murder scene was all that acceptable, even at the time — the contemporary review by Variety called it “gruesome”. They also seemed to feel that the story was not as creative as most of Sturges’s films, and I think they’re probably right about that. I think he was concentrating more on the visuals, the tone shifts, and the music than on coming up with a wildly inventive plot, but I can also see why reviewers might not be that impressed.

  4. I adore this movie so much that I even have the remake on DVD. Although, it’s not as good.hh

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