Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
Written & Directed by Preston Sturges
At one point in his career, Preston Sturges was the third highest-paid man in America. He knew his value by 1944 at Paramount and began making more demands, throwing his weight around. After some poor business investments in Los Angeles, he started borrowing more money from family and friends. His good friend Howard Hughes even bankrolled Sturges’ venture as an independent filmmaker with California Pictures, a pay cut but also a higher level of control that made others in Hollywood envious. With all this success and prominence came a decline in quality and consistency. Sturges worked best when he has a force to butt heads with, but given complete artistic freedom, he began producing subpar work. After a series of flops, Sturges was no longer a creator people sought out, and he would have one more moderate hit before everything came crashing down.
Unfaithfully Yours is a very dark comedy about Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison), a world-famous symphony conductor who has returned from a visit abroad. His dim-witted brother-in-law (Rudy Vallee) had paid a private investigator to tail Carter’s wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) and what he finds points to infidelity with Carter’s secretary. At first, Carter is infuriated that anyone would imply such a thing about his bride and goes off on everyone around him. After speaking with the gumshoe, he turns his anger on thoughts of harming Daphne and her lover. A considerable amount of time in the film is spent on Carter’s homicidal and self-pitying daydreams about what Carter wants to do. Ultimately, when Carter attempts to enact these plans, he finds himself wholly inept and totally wrong in his assumptions.
This is our last film in the Sturges retrospective and what a disappointment to end on. Gone are the sharp wit and clever plot twists, instead everything is boiled down to an extremely predictable plot. Any momentum is sidelined by dream sequences that go on for too long and have no real consequence in the story. This is a much more psychological and darker comedy than Sturges had made before, and I appreciate his willingness to go into new directions with his stories. It’s also profoundly self-indulgent and not in a good way. Sometimes, when untethered artists create their most celebrated works or, in Sturges’s case, some of his weakest.
Unfaithfully Yours, outside the context of Sturges’s previous films, is not bad at all. It’s a relatively pat screwball comedy. It does contain some problematic things but, at the time, seemed normal. Carter having daydreams about slashing his supposedly unfaithful wife’s throat and staging a crime scene to implicate the lover is some extremely dark comedy. I was reminded of some of Hitchcock’s attempts at comedic films but not quite as inventive. Unfaithfully Yours ends up becoming annoyingly repetitive, even the slapstick feels uninspired and clunky. That type of comedy needs to feel fluid and sharp, and Sturges’s earlier work had those qualities
Much like many other late-stage career films, you see the limitations of Sturges’s toolbox. He had big things to say in funny ways about topics of the day during the Depression/War period, but post-WWII he feels lost. Marital issues should be a layup for him, as evidenced by The Palm Beach Story, but here we have an undeveloped female character that feels out place in this director’s work. I think about how he would give actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert such fantastic comedic roles and then we have a dull, boring wife in Unfaithfully Yours. But that is how things go in the movie business. Sturges did leave us with some of the most fantastic American satires that manage to speak to the times in which they were made yet also touch on great universal themes.