|Unfaithfully Yours (1948)|
|DVD Romantic Comedy|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 July 2005|
When “Unfaithfully Yours” was first released in 1948, it was such a monumental flop (and so expensive) that it put a lot of nails in the coffin of the career of writer-director-producer Preston Sturges. He only made one more American movie and a minor film in France some years later.
For most people today, Preston Sturges isn’t even a forgotten name; most have never heard of the guy. And this even though he was the most famous movie director of the 1940s—far more famous than Hitchcock, Cukor or Ford—and the third highest-paid man in the United States. Only Ernst Lubitsch—another largely forgotten name—was more famous as a director, but his fame came in the 1930s.
Between 1939 and 1946, Sturges made one hit after another; not only were the films very successful, but they were unusual and distinctive, depicting a very real America—but one that was full of eccentric screwballs who largely looked alike: Sturges was very well known for working over and over with the same group of supporting players.
He came from an unusual background. His father was a staid Chicago businessman, but his mother was Mary Desti, a brilliant but footloose companion to dancer Isadora Duncan. Desti frequently left young Preston with friends for months at a time, or would suddenly swoop down, scoop him up and he’d find himself dressed in a toga, eating grapes on a Greek hillside while Isadora taught interpretive dancing. Back home in Chicago, he lived a staid, proper life, suitable to the son of a business leader. The combination of these wildly disparate upbringings produced an amazing man.
Unsure of his life, he wound up writing successful plays (but to the end of his life was still unsure that he was really a writer), which eventually brought him to Hollywood. His script for “The Power and the Glory” (1933) was very well-received, and throughout the thirties he wrote one major film after another, including “Diamond Jim,” “Easy Living” and Bob Hope’s “Never Say Die.” When he wrote “The Great McGinty” everyone in town wanted to produce it—but he insisted upon being the director.
Paramount bit. “The Great McGinty” was immensely popular, and for the next several years Sturges wrote and directed one hit after another: “Christmas in July” (1940), “The Lady Eve” (1941), “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), “The Palm Beach Story” (1942), “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” (both starring Eddie Bracken, both 1944). His more serious “The Great Moment,” starring one of his favorites, Joel McCrea, didn’t do well.
He had to make money, as he lived a lavish lifestyle and went through several marriages. He also ran a popular, expensive restaurant, The Players, at the eastern end of the Sunset Strip. (The building is still there, still a restaurant.) It rarely made money, but Sturges poured his vast salaries into it.
Against the advice of almost everyone who knew him, he embarked on a production deal with Howard Hughes. (Their motto, in Latin, translated as “We do not smell from herring.”) Sturges always chafed at studio interference and thought he’d be let alone by Hughes—but the opposite happened. The movie, “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock,” was a painful experience for Sturges and he never made another movie for Hughes.
Are you still with me here?
So he made another deal with a devil—with Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox. After debating among several ideas, they finally settled on what became “Unfaithfully Yours.” Despite his billing—the first time in Hollywood history—as writer, producer AND director, Sturges found Zanuck taking the movie away from him for its final edit. He made one more movie for Fox, a routine little comedy he had no faith in, and fled to Paris.
“Unfaithfully Yours” met with mixed reviews and very poor boxoffice—and no wonder. It’s very different from his scruffy, crowded comedies of the early 40s, full of wild eyed wackos and blessed with zippy pacing. It’s even cerebral, an intimate film with only a few leading characters and a story in which, actually, nothing happens. This DVD has also received mixed reviews, but as in 1948, that’s largely because people don’t give it the patience it deserves. Those who do will be richly rewarded: there’s about half an hour in this movie, not long before the end, that’s funnier than almost any similar stretch of time in any other film. But you have to watch the less-funny first part to get to that part—it’s not just a matter of patience, but that the early part is what makes the latter part so damned funny.
Rex Harrison is brilliant, egotistical and fussy conductor Sir Alfred De Carter, at the height of a brilliant career. His younger, devoted and very American wife is Daphne (Linda Darnell), who patiently waits on him hand and foot and suffers willingly through his occasional temper tantrums. His male secretary, Tony (Kurt Kreuger), is all a demanding man could want. Sir Alfred is a happy man; he knows his place in the world, and when he steps up to the podium in front of an orchestra, baton in hand, he is master of that world. Everyone does what he wants.
But the day of a major evening concert, he stumbles across disturbing information which he keeps trying to reject. The house detective (Al Bridge) at Sir Alfred’s hotel tries to give him incriminating evidence about Daphne. Sir Alfred indignantly destroys it. But he does visit the private detective who’d been the leg man for gathering the info. Sir Alfred is startled when the detective, Sweeney (Edgar Kennedy), turns out to be a very enthusiastic, knowledgeable fan. (You have the impression Sir Alfred has rarely met a fan of his work who wasn’t wearing a tuxedo.) And finally Sir Alfred gets the bad news: it seems that Daphne spent an hour or so alone with Tony in his room.
Already all too aware of the difference in their ages, Sir Alfred is almost convinced by this shocking news. He’s distant and brittle to Daphne, and when he begins conducting the first selection, a moody piece by Rossini, he imagines an elaborate, film noir-ish plot involving a recording device, a straight razor, the murder of Daphne and the framing of Tony. We see it all, underscored by the piece Sir Alfred is conducting; it concludes with him at Tony’s sentencing, laughing like a fiend.
Back in the theater, everyone is complimentary, but distracted Sir Alfred returns to the podium to conduct a richly romantic, melancholy selection by Wagner. In this fantasy—Sturges called them “prospects”—it’s all very tragic, and Sir Alfred is hurt but deeply noble, giving the grieving Daphne a lot of money and fading out of her life.
There’s one more piece, this one by Tchaikovsky, that leads Sir Alfred to imagine himself, Daphne and Tony in a vaguely Noel Cowardish crisp romantic scene that ends with him accidentally killing himself.
After the concert, Sir Alfred evades everyone and returns to his hotel to put one or more of these plans into practice. And turns into Wile E. Coyote. Everything works against him, but he persistently continues, ignoring collapsing chairs, chattering telephones, roulette wheels and other impedimentia. This is the comic sequence, and it’s perfect. Absolutely perfect. You can’t say that about many movie sequences.
“Unfaithfully Yours” was ineptly remade under the same title with Dudley Moore and Nastassja Kinski; it was better than you might expect, but was intended to be funnier sooner, and reduced the “prospects” to just one. This movie is little remembered today.
Sturges had wanted James Mason for the conductor, and it really raises the eyebrows to imagine Mason going through some of the things that befall Harrison. They go up pretty high just to see Sexy Rexy doing pratfalls. But now, by gum, you CAN see him do all this brilliantly, exhaustingly hilarious stuff.
This DVD includes a peculiar abut enthusiastic introduction by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, who’s clearly a great fan of the film—but did this bit need to be quite so long? The commentary track by James Harvey, Brian Henderson and Diane Jacobs (she wrote a biography of Sturges) is much more interesting—but peculiarly, they don’t mention the basis of the whole picture. When writing “The Power and the Glory” back in 1932 or so, Sturges was puzzled as to why the script kept taking on tones he didn’t intend. He eventually realized it was because classical music played in another room kept resetting his mental tone. He was never a huge fan of classical music, but he knew its immense emotional power. The tone and content of each of Sir Alfred’s fantasies is shaped and focused by the music he’s conducting at that moment. (This movie was called “The Symphony Story” early on.) I presume these three scholars were so close to the material they didn’t think it necessary to explain the genesis of the movie.
The interview with Sturges’ widow is charming and informative, and so are some of the stills included on the DVD. For reasons known only to him, I suppose, Sturges usually directed with a small megaphone fastened to his belt, and while wearing a fez. If that helped him make movies as wonderful as those he did for nine years, on with the fez.
There has never been another writer/director like Preston Sturges, but annoyingly, too few of his films so far are available on DVD. The Criterion Collection also offers “The Lady Eve” and “Sullivan’s Travels” (possibly his best movie), and if you dig around you might turn up “The Palm Beach Story” and “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” I suppose everything comes to those who are patient enough long enough.
At least we now have “Unfaithfully Yours” on this DVD. The print is perfect and rendered in high-definition. But remember: give it time. It begins as a dry, witty comedy (with a brief, unsuccessful foray into slapstick involving a fire hose), but concludes with a great, great sequence.