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UNFAITHFULLY YOURS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Rudy Vallee
Director: Preston Sturges
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, two interviews, art & photo gallery, trailer, essay
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 2005

What would you do if you discovered that your wife had been untrue to you?

Film ****

Preston Sturges is frequently described as Hollywood’s first true auteur.  Early in his career though, he was just another Tinseltown screenwriter.  However, as Sturges observed with growing dissatisfaction and exasperation the manner in which his scripts were being filmed, he began to aspire towards loftier pursuits than merely penning sublime screenplays to be mangled by incompetent hack directors.  In 1940, Sturges struck a deal with Paramount that allowed him to direct his own script for The Great McGinty.  If you want something done right, do it yourself!  The result was a box office hit that subsequently launched Preston Sturges’ bright if mercurial career as a top Hollywood director.

Over the next several years, Sturges would become moviedom’s Man with the Midas Touch.  He could do no wrong, and his well-received comedies, combining slapstick, physical comedy, and sardonic humor with wit and sophistication, included such dazzling classics as The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, to name but a few.  All were drawn from Sturges’ own pen and all were directed by him as well.

With each new film and consequent box office hit, Sturge’s clout would grow until, by the mid-1940’s, he had become not only one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood but also one of the highest paid men in all of America.  The time had become ripe for Sturges to re-visit one of his early scripts, an unfilmed story that had been floating about for years.  That story, “Symphony Story,” written around 1933, would form the basis for Sturges’ last great comedy, Unfaithfully Yours (1948).

Unfaithfully Yours is the tale of a jealous man driven by an all-consuming and irrational rage.  Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) is a famous conductor who fantasizes about murdering his flirtatious wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) after he begins to suspect that she is secretly engaged in an extramarital affair.  Over the course of an evening concert performance, Alfred imagines again and again in his mind how he might seek retribution on his unfaithful wife.  One can easily envision Alfred Hitchcock, in one of his lighter moments, directing this film à la Suspicion.  In fact, Unfaithfully Yours was originally promoted as a murder-mystery!

In truth though, Sturges’ film is a dark comedy.  Sir Alfred’s wild fantasies will amount to naught when he hilariously bungles his own crazy plans.  A genius with a baton Alfred may be, but as a murderer, he is all thumbs.  And happily, all’s well that ends well in this film (that is, if one is to entirely believe wife Daphne’s “tying up the loose ends” explanation for the misunderstanding that had initiated the ridiculously over-exaggerated marital crisis in the first place).

Unfaithfully Yours was a 20th-Century Fox production and the result of an uneasy collaboration between Preston Sturges and the studio’s film mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck.  Throughout the production, the strong-willed Sturges was regularly irritated by Zanuck’s frequent memos, and the overbearing Zanuck, for his part, regularly tried to leverage his usual modus operandi of controlling as much of the production as possible.  Zanuck chose the film’s leading lady, Linda Darnell, from among his contract players (he had originally suggested Gene Tierney in the role of Daphne).  At one point, Zanuck even edited the film himself over Sturges’ protests.  As a result, the completion of Sturges’ pet project would prove to be an unhappy affair for the director.

Unfaithfully Yours did not fare so well at the box office, either.  Audiences had come to expect a certain style of witticism and humor from a Preston Sturges film and were not prepared to accept a Sturges film marketed as a murder-mystery.  Furthermore, the film’s star Rex Harrison had garnered a reputation as a philandering ladies’ man (earning him the nickname “Sexy Rexy”), and the scandalous, recent suicide of his mistress Carole Landis did not help matters, either.  Justifiably or not, Harrison was blamed for Landis’ death, and he was soon regarded as box office poison just prior to the release of the now-ironically titled Unfaithfully Yours.

Still, removed from all the unfortunate circumstances of its production and initial release, Unfaithfully Yours can now be seen as the superb example of dark comedy that it is.  Like Chaplin with his Monsieur Verdoux, Sturges took a sensitive subject - spousal murder - and found exquisite humor.  It was not Sturges’ first entanglement with a taboo subject (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek had dealt with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy), but the director’s boldness and uncanny ability to dance around the censors was part of the frequent charms of his films.  Perhaps the most ironic twist in Unfaithfully Yours is that we the audience never really learn the precise nature of Daphne’s supposed indiscretion.  Her crime, if one ever existed, was perhaps just as much a product of her husband’s overactive imagination as were his own passionate fantasies.  Just another overly-zealous, wild-haired composer, right?

Video ***

The film is shown in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.  The black & white transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive.  Images are sharp with a minimum of age-related defects.

Audio ** ½

The film is presented in English monaural with efforts made to minimize clicks, hiss, pops, and crackle from the original soundtrack.  An unusually large portion of the film’s running time is devoted to performances of classical works by Tchaikovsky, Rossini, and Wagner (with additional music from one of  Hollywood’s top composers of the day, Alfred Newman).

Features ***

A feature-length commentary  is provided by a triumvirate of Sturges scholars in James Harvey, Diane Jacobs, and Brian Henderson, who mix in discussions of Unfaithfully Yours with anecdotes about Sturges’ life and career.

There are two interviews.  The first one is an introduction (14 min.) in which Terry Jones comments on his favorite scenes and dialogue from the film.  Jones also recounts a meeting once with Preston Sturges and his own experiences watching the director’s films.  The second interview (24 min.) offers reminiscences from Preston Sturges’ widow, Sandy.  Mrs. Sturges focuses her thoughts on her late husband’s Hollywood career and the film Unfaithfully Yours, particularly its casting woes and Darryl F. Zanuck’s influence over the production.

Among the promotional supplements are a trailer (2 min.) and a gallery of thirty entries comprised of memos, letters, correspondences, movie stills, and some lobby art.

A package insert provides cast & crew information, film credits, and an essay by Jonathan Lethem.  This scholarly if somewhat abstract article, “Zeno, Achilles, and Sir Alfred,” champions Unfaithfully Yours as one of Sturges’ great films.

Summary:

In Unfaithfully Yours, an insanely jealous man fantasizes about murder but discovers that carrying out the actual deed can be a Herculean task.  Combining Sturges’ trademark comic wit with a macabre twist of Hitchcockian humor, this dark comedy ranks as one of Preston Sturges’ better films.

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