Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Directed by Preston Sturges

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The camera pushes in slowly and dramatically on Alfred (Rex Harrison) as he conducts a lavish orchestra for a high-class audience.  He is the center of this world, all eyes on him, and this shot happens three times, zooming from a wide angle all the way into his left eye.

The following three sequences are scenarios imagined by Alfred of how to deal with his wife’s perceived infidelity with his assistant.  Though superficially in control, these imagined scenarios highlight the storm brewing in Alfred’s mind.  He begins to unravel as his imagination runs wild.  In the end we will see just how far from the truth Alfred is, both in his suspicions as well as in the plausibility of carrying out the plans he concocts in his head to deal with those suspicions.

Unfaithfully Yours opens with an audience commenting on the disgustingly sappy romance between Alfred and his wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell).  They are the image of true love, and this audience lets us know that the film isn’t going to indulge in their romance.  This is a story in which we’re meant to analyze their relationship rather than get swept up in it.

When Alfred’s brother-in-law, August (Rudy Vallee), comes to Alfred with the belief that Daphne is having an affair with Alfred’s assistant, Tony, Alfred starts to unravel.  He takes his place onstage for the night’s orchestra, but while he conducts he gets lost in his own mind, taken with varying ways of dealing with the affair.

In the first sequence he comes up with the perfect murder, killing his wife and pinning it on Tony through a series of elaborate steps, something like Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.  When they get to court and Tony is sentenced to death, Alfred bursts out laughing.  We then see him laughing onstage, smitten with this idea of revenge.

After a break he is back onstage and just as quickly busy in his own mind.  This time he imagines being the bigger man, insisting that Daphne go off with Tony and writing her a check for a generous sum of money.

In the third scenario, a much shorter and more hilarious one, Alfred confronts Daphne and Tony with a plan to play Russian Roulette.  Alfred aims the gun at his temple and promptly dies.

In the final act of the film Alfred succumbs to his worst instincts, all fueled by his imagination.  He attempts to carry out the plan to murder his wife but fails spectacularly, and at no point in time does he get close to harming her, thankfully.  This sequence is mostly silent and full of slapstick pratfalls like the ones that made up Sturges’ The Lady Eve.

Unfaithfully Yours is a screwball comedy that emphasizes the storm beneath the calm surface.  Alfred’s plot, no matter how dark it gets, is always treated with levity.  It doesn’t matter how sinister his plot is since he struggles so mightily to carry it out.  In this type of story it doesn’t matter how threatening a character might be if it’s undermined by how inept they are.

In the end, Daphne and Alfred make up when he learns that his fears are misplaced.  She accepts him as he is, shrugging off his insane behavior as just that of a temperamental artist.  Their loving embrace, mirrored by the one that opened the film, is much less romantic than it was previously since we have taken a glimpse inside Alfred’s psyche.

Like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Sturges’ film takes a look at high-class society and pokes holes in the superficial exterior.  These are characters who might think they’re above it all, whatever “it” is, but they’re no less human than anyone else.  If anything, their manicured lives, having taken care of so many practical concerns, leaves too much room for imagination and madness.  These are characters who create their own problems and suffer for them.

Unfaithfully Yours is an extremely funny film, with a degree of humor that stands up well to time.  The humor is mostly derived from physicality, with stumbling or ignorant characters dropping items and tripping over their environment like it’s a factory that hasn’t passed a safety inspection in decades.

The characters in this world are very carefully put together, and those costumes are falling apart.  In one amusing scene, Daphne and company continually drop things from their luxury suite at the orchestra onto the people below.  In another moment an excited patron of the arts keeps on over-clapping for the performance, drawing dagger-eyed stares from those around him.  In one scene Alfred starts a fire that he struggles to put out, and in the final act he puts on a Chaplin-esque performance of futility, struggling to keep up with even the simplest components of the room around him, something like in Modern Times.

Preston Sturges made screwball comedies.  He won the first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and he was the first person to receive two screenwriting nominations in the same year.

“Many of [Sturges’] movies and screenplays reveal a restless and impatient attempt to escape codified rules and narrative schemata, and to push the mechanisms and conventions of their genre to the extent of unveiling them to the spectator. See for example the disruption of standardized timelines in films such as The Power and the Glory and The Great McGinty or the way an apparently classical comedy such as Unfaithfully Yours (1948) shifts into the realm of multiple and hypothetical narratives.”

Up Next: Terms of Endearment (1983), Obit. (2016), Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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