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Review: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Written and directed by Preston Sturges

After a successful run of seven hit films in four years with Paramount Pictures, writer-director Preston Sturges left and signed a deal with Howard Hughes. Their arrangement didn’t work out and resulted in the release of only one film, technically two if you count Sturges’ edit, Mad Wednesday, and Harold Lloyd’s edit, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Sturges then signed a very lucrative contract with 20th Century Fox and producer Darryl Zanuck. The first film to come out of that union was Unfaithfully Yours.

Orchestra conductor Sir Alfred De Carter returns from a trip overseas and receives information from a private detective that his wife is having an affair. During a concert performance, he envisions three ways to end their marriage. After the concert, the execution of his plans is not as simple as he imagined.

While Unfaithfully Yours doesn’t rise to the level of his great films, such as The Palm Beach Story or Sullivan’s Travels, it is enjoyable, though a tad unusual, which some will find not completely satisfying. Sturges mixes elements of different genres, such as black comedy, film noir, slapstick and romance to create a strange amalgamation.

One of the strengths of Sturges’ films is that the plots usually take unexpected, inventive turns, but in this film, the viewer is caught off guard as the mood sharply changes. For example, after one of De Carter’s grim fantasies, the film delivers a protracted slapstick scene without dialogue. These fluctuations might lose some of the audience because they won’t know how to react. The film needed either more laughs, more thrills or maybe both.

The film was received poorly when it opened. While the film was certainly ahead of its time, it was also affected by off-screen events as well. Rex Harrison had discovered the body of Carole Landis, who had apparently committed suicide over him, and the gossip pages ran wild, some even implicating Harrison’s involvement in her death. It’s hard to sell a movie about a man planning to kill his wife with a star who may have killed a girlfriend. Zanuck toned down the publicity and marketing as a result.

The cast is very good. Harrison is very funny, giving his best comedic performance as the jealous husband. Linda Darnell, as Daphne, his wife, does a wonderful job playing different versions of her character as envisioned in De Carter’s fantasies. Some members of Sturges’ company appear throughout.

The print of the film is a new, restored high-definition digital transfer. The contrast of the black and white photography looks fantastic; all the images in the shot are sharp and detailed. There are a couple of problems that should have been dealt with, requiring only minor restoration. One short scene has a vertical black line running though on the left side and another scene has a hair fluttering at the bottom of the screen.

Writers James Harvey (Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges), Brian Henderson (Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, Editor) and Diane Jacobs (Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges) provide wide-ranging commentary. They cover many subjects, such as Sturges’ biography, his work in comparison to contemporaries like Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra, background information about the actors, and what was going on in Hollywood and the country back at the time. It is very intriguing information and sure to be enjoyed by film aficionados and those with an interest in old Hollywood.

They illustrate how smart a filmmaker Sturges is by explaining his musical choices and little touches that would go unnoticed. The film opens with a musical piece by Tchaikovsky based on Dante’s Inferno, Canto V. It is a genius selection by Sturges because this passage deals with the Second Circle of Hell, which is for carnal sinners. The punishment on this level traps the lovers in a violent storm in order to keep them from touching each another. Sturges continues the imagery of the allusion by giving Daphne’s suspected paramour the last name Windborn.

Monty Python member Terry Jones appears in a video introduction of the film that should be more appropriately classified as a video reflection because he gives a way a lot of information about the plot. I had not seen the movie beforehand and was disappointed that I started to watch this segment first.

There’s also an interview with Sturges’ fourth wife, Sandy, whom he was married to from 1951 until his death in 1959. She talks about their meeting, Sturges’ life, the film and reaction to it by both audiences and Sturges himself.

A gallery contains images of old letters, memos and telegrams regarding the film from Zanuck, Harrison and even producers who passed on it. It’s a great bit of Hollywood history, and it is remarkable that these materials were still available.

Fans of Sturges will appreciate Unfaithfully Yours and the quality of its restored appearance, but I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to his work because you might not understand what all the fuss is about. For those new to Sturges, I would recommend you see this after you’ve watching two or three of his great Paramount films.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS

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