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Unfaithfully Yours: The Criterion Collection (1948)

If Unfaithfully Yours is commonly described as Preston Sturges's blackest comedy, it also can be considered his last significant work. After turning out a string of masterpieces for Paramount in the early 1940s (including The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Hail the Conquering Hero, and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), Sturges parted ways with the studio that helped forge his legend. A brief collaboration with Howard Hughes followed, but before long Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox snapped up Paramount's resident genius, making Sturges at the time the third-highest-paid man in America. Despite such an auspicious outset, Sturges would only make two films under the Fox banner — The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949) starring Betty Grable was the flop that effectively ended his directing career. Released just one year earlier, Unfaithfully Yours has enjoyed a better critical reception with the passage of time, although it was not well received in its day by reviewers or audiences. Rex Harrison stars as Sir Alfred De Carter, a renowned orchestra conductor who is at the apex of his career. His romantic life, on the other hand, is on a far more unstable path. Devoted to his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell), he's stricken when his brother-in-law August Henshler (Rudy Vallee) reveals he recently hired a detective to follow her. Unwilling to accept the possibility that his wife's been unfaithful, he initially lashes out at August, and then at the private detective (Edgar Kennedy). But De Carter eventually learns that his wife was observed visiting the hotel room of his assistant Tony (Kurt Krueger). Taking the stage for his next performance, he then fantasizes his retribution during three musical movements. However, once he finds himself in a position to act out his fantasies, he learns that ill-conceived plans will easily go astray.

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Along with its clever musical motif, Unfaithfully Yours is distinct among the works of Preston Sturges because it focuses almost exclusively on one character, and one that isn't always likable. Unlike Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve or Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels, Alfred De Carter is temperamental, self-absorbed, and jealous to the extreme. The script has encouraged Sturges's biographers and scholars to speculate on its more personal details, and arguments can be made for and against its autobiographical provenance. However, the dark tone, few belly laughs, and misogynistic leading man are what derailed its 1948 theatrical release (at one point, Fox reportedly thought of marketing it as a thriller). Six decades later, it's easier to appreciate Sturges's broad talent — just as Sullivan's Travels shifted from Hollywood comedy to somber melodrama, Unfaithfully Yours easily trades in slapstick, romance, and murderous black humor. Rex Harrison is well cast as De Carter (selected after James Mason was unavailable), delivering the sort of energy and verbal fury Sturges delighted in. Linda Darnell is likewise appealing as Daphne, but as with all other roles in the picture, it's strictly supporting work (Gene Tierney turned down the part due to its limitations). The first act effectively creates the suggestion of infidelity, but the film's middle section is were Sturges shines, lavishly setting De Carter's three Mittyesque reveries to orchestral scores as the conductor frames his wife's lover for her murder, nobly gives her money to run off with her lover, and plays Russian roulette with the deceptive paramours. The third act returns to slapstick form as De Carter runs headlong into reality, soon learning that contriving a murder is far easier in the realm of personal imagination. It all ends a bit swiftly, and with a poetic chestnut Sturges often whispered to lovers and wives. But even if it's a minor work in a dazzling career, Unfaithfully Yours remains as wildly inventive as any of the director's major films, and it's the most daring of the bunch. Criterion's DVD release features a clean full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a black-and-white source print that's virtually pristine with excellent low-contrast gradients, while the original monaural audio is rich and free of ambient noise (DD 1.0). Supplements on board include a scholarly commentary featuring film historians James Harvey, Brian Henderson, Diane Jacobs. Also included are introductory comments from Terry Jones (6 min.), an amusing interview with the director's widow Sandy Sturges, recorded in 2004 (25 min.), stills, and the theatrical trailer. The enclosed booklet features an essay by Jonathan Lethem. Keep-case.

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