Unfaithfully Yours [DVD]
Director : Preston Sturges
Screenplay : Preston Sturges
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1948
Stars : Rex Harrison (Sir Alfred De Carter), Linda Darnell (Daphne De Carter), Rudy Vallee (August Henshler), Barbara Lawrence (Barbara), Kurt Kreuger (Tony), Lionel Stander (Hugo Standoff), Edgar Kennedy (Detective Sweeney), Alan Bridge (House Detective), Julius Tannen (O’Brien, the Tailor), Torben Meyer (Dr. Schultz)
On the surface, Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours, the last film the great writer/director made in Hollywood before his self-imposed exile to Europe, is about the subject of marital jealousy. After all, it tells the story of a man who comes to believe that his wife is cheating on him with his personal assistant and, consumed with anger and jealousy, concocts a hair-brained scheme to do away with her and pin the rap on her lover.
Yet, in a sense, what the film is really about is art -- more specifically, the pomposity of those who claim to make it. Sturges himself was a great artist, but he was first and foremost a great populist. He dealt almost exclusively in comedies and romances, effectively delivering to the audience what they wanted with an extra dash of social conscience, parody, satire, and irony. He never condescended to those who saw his films and spent much of his time deflating the pretenses of those who would. The powerful, wealthy elite -- those people Sturges referred to in the opening page of his autobiography as “crowned heads, hereditary multimillionaires, and other neurotic characters” -- were constantly on the receiving end of his humor; his films were, above all else, great levelers.
Although Unfaithfully Yours is not one of Sturges’ best films (although great in it own way, it doesn’t quite match his true masterpieces like The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels), it is one of the most striking examples of the way in which his films undercut snooty pretensions. The film’s main character is Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison at his haughty finest), a world-renowned orchestra conductor who is clearly modeled on British conductor Thomas Beecham. He is the very epitome of the well-bred and refined aristocrat (and he’s English, to boot): finely dressed and meticulous, he maintains an air of decorum that is broken only when he is so offended by another person that he cannot restrict himself from informing that person of the intensity of his feelings.
Sturges sets up Sir Alfred’s character in the first half of the film so he can gamely tear him down in the second. Sir Alfred’s wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell), is beautiful and dedicated (and much younger than he is), and early scenes make it clear that they are deeply and passionately in love. This is called into question, however, when Sir Alfred is alerted to the fact that Daphne may be cheating on him with personal assistant, a handsome young man named Tony (Kurt Kreuger). This information comes by way of a private detective (Edgar Kennedy) hired by Sir Alfred’s much-despised brother-in-law, August (Rudy Vallee). Sir Alfred is incensed -- absolutely incensed -- that a “footpad,” as he calls the detective, would dare follow his wife. He considers private detectives the lowest of the low, and when he finds out that this particular one is a music lover, he almost loses all hope in the refined and moral nature of great art.
This idea of “great art” as “moral” is crucial to Sturges’ satire, because the middle section of the film is composed of a series of fantasies in Sir Alfred’s head as he conducts the orchestra. Each piece of music spurs a different fantasy, beginning with a convoluted scheme to murder Daphne and frame Tony for the deed (Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide), to a scenario of guilt-inflicting forgiveness (the reconciliation theme from Wagner’s Tannhauser), to a ridiculous situation in which he confronts the lovers and challenges Tony to a game of Russian roulette (Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini overture). The music and the fantasies are intricately connected, and the fact that classical music inspires images of throat slashing and perjury is but one of Sturges’ means of slicing through the class-based conception of certain kinds of art being “uplifting” while others are “degrading.”
When the concert is over, Sir Alfred scurries home to put into action his murder scheme, but finds that what plays out so neatly in fantasy doesn’t always work so well in real life (an obvious dig at the fantasy-nature of movies themselves). This leads to a protracted scene of almost wordless slapstick comedy in which Sir Alfred attempts to set the stage for Daphne and Tony’s undoing, but ends up trashing most of his apartment in the process and getting virtually nowhere in his scheme.
Many of Sturges’ films feature slapstick, but never quite as much as he included here, and for many it is the film’s undoing. Sturges was a master wordsmith, able to concoct machine-gun-fire dialogue of such playfulness and intricacy that multiple viewings only being to scratch the tip of their mastery. His physical comedy never quite matched up to his verbal wit, and some have found the slapstick in Unfaithfully Yours lacking. To be fair, it isn’t on par with Buster Keaton, but watching Sir Alfred fumble about his apartment crushing chairs, dropping lightbulbs, and accidentally tossing important equipment out a window has plenty of comical enjoyment all its own, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that Sturges is using the physical comedy to continue his critique of high society. Turning Sir Alfred, who was oh-so suave and assured in his fantasy, into a bumbling fool who is stymied by the directions for a recording machine, is central to the film’s mission to undercut high-art ideals and pretensions.
The only thing from which Sturges doesn’t cut out the legs is love. Always the great romantic, Sturges brings the story around to a (arguably contrived) happy ending in the final moments, revealing the possibly true nature of the situation and using it to humble Sir Alfred as both an artist and, more importantly, a husband. Sir Alfred’s immortal line to his wife “A thousand poets dreamt a thousand years and then you were born” was taken from one of Sturges’ own love letters, and while there have been attempts to read it ironically, it is most fitting as a capstone to a story in which the ultimate message is that true love is the only thing worth idealizing.
|Unfaithfully Yours Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||July 12, 2005|
|In terms of contrast and detail, the new high-definition transfer of Unfaithfully Yours is outstanding. Taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, the image has excellent depth and generally solid black levels. Digital restoration has taken care of most dirt and debris, although there are a few scenes that have some scratches or vertical lines. Otherwise, this is a solid transfer.|
|The monaural soundtrack has also been digitally restored and sounds fantastic for its age.|
|As with the commentary on the Criterion DVD of Sullivan’s Travels, the audio commentary on this disc is a group affair. Criterion has rounded up a trio of noted film scholars, including James Harvey (author of Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, From Lubitsch to Sturges), Brian Henderson (editor of the Sturges collection Five Screenplays), and Diane Jacobs (author of Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges) to discuss the film. Their commentary is always insightful and engaging, made all the more so by the fact that they don’t always agree in their interpretations and understandings of both the film and Sturges as an artist. |
Also included in the disc is a 7-minute introduction to the film by Monty Python alum Terry Jones (who is humorously interrupted at the last moment by the sudden appearance of his cat) and a 25-minute video interview with Sturges’ widow, Sandy Sturges (both of these supplements previously appeared on a Region 2 DVD). Sandy’s interview is particularly interesting as she offers personal insight into Sturges’ work and how his life is reflected in aspects of Unfaithfully Yours. Other supplements include a stills galley of rare production correspondence and production stills and the original theatrical trailer.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection