I’ve been a fan of Preston Sturges for at least a couple of decades. But that is based on his first eight films. I haven’t seen anything after Hail the Conquering Hero. At least in the old days, it was hard to find the later films because they weren’t successes. So I didn’t go out of my way to find them, even though I owned all of first eight films. But recently in a comment exchange with James, he recommended that I watch Sturges’s 1948 film Unfaithfully Yours.
Thankfully, The Criterion Collection released Unfaithfully Yours on DVD in 2005. And as usual, they did a great job. It includes an introduction with Terry Jones; a group commentary with scholars (always the best for this kind of stuff) James Harvey, Diane Jacobs, and Brian Henderson; an interview with Preston Sturges’ last (fourth) wife; and some other miscellaneous stuff. I haven’t had a chance to check it out in detail.
The film stars Rex Harrison (looking rather like Preston Stuges himself) and Linda Darnell as his wife. And it is about jealousy. Really: almost nothing actually happens in the film. It is mostly just Harrison getting more and more freaked out by his imagination. He starts as a man totally in love and trusting of his wife. But a seed is accidentally planted and it works on him as well as Iago did on Othello. But things turn out better for Harrison and Darnell.
I can see why Unfaithfully Yours didn’t play at the time. It has an unusual structure. The first half hour is spent with Harrison avoiding looking at the incriminating evidence against his wife that has been created. The next 45 minutes are spent at a concert where Harrison is conducting. Over the course of three numbers, he imagines confronting his wife and her suspected lover. In the first, he murders her and frames the lover. In the second, he’s very understanding — sending her away with a large check. And in the third, he plays Russian roulette with the lover.
The rest of the film shows him trying to realize each of his fantasies. This go hilariously wrong. That’s especially true of his perfect murder plot, which is 15 minutes of slapstick zaniness. Everything works out, of course. Harrison and Darnell end the film just as in love as they started. And hopefully, Harrison is a better man for it. But you have to wonder, given that he is a Preston Sturges character.
Why Unfaithfully Yours Is Better Today
Another reason people probably didn’t like it at the time is that the tone of Unfaithfully Yours is inconsistent. It’s funny throughout. But the fantasy scenes are funny in a different, darker, way. And I suspect that this left a lot of people cold. It also didn’t set them up for the final act that is a comedic tour de force.
But it is exactly the unusual structure and tonal shifts that make the film work so well for a modern viewer — especially one who is familiar with Sturges’ other work. It’s probably good to think about modern superhero films. They are all the same and they all do well at the theaters. If someone created a superhero film that broke with convention, it probably wouldn’t do well. But it would be one of the few films anyone could stomach in 70 years.
I highly recommend the film if you are the kind of person who isn’t wedded to the new releases. Now I think I’ll go watch it again.