Thursday, February 24, 2011

Movie Review: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Written and directed by Preston Sturges. 1948.

Unfaithfully Yours is a much odder movie than I expected and just why it works I am not precisely sure. Yet it does work and it is very funny.

All of the performances are pitched nearly to the point of caricature, from Rex Harrison's cocky and stubborn conductor to Darnell's turn as his impossibly devoted wife to Edgar Kennedy as the music-loving flatfoot, the characters are at the edge of parody. This feature along with the dry and sharp wit which pervades nearly every line of the opening act, sets the audience slightly off-balance. Even the dialogue subverts our expectations and not just with sharp phrases. In the first few minutes Harrison switches between a semi-oratorical style and bizarre throw away phrases ("a cat who had its kittens in a harmonium.") We hear both musical jargon and rhyming jokes ("handle Handel" and "your Delius is delirious.") All of this dialogue is delivered with great rapidity further confusing the tone of this act as the film never settles into one tone. One the one hand we have some rather saucy dialogue (cut off with a few clever edits) and on the other we have giant cymbals and a fiasco with fire-hoses set to the William Tell Overture. No wonder Unfaithfully Yours is sometimes billed as slapstick and other times dark comedy. What will we make of all of this?

The grossly overweening Sir Alfred De Carter (Harrison) is quite the conceited conductor even before he suspects his new bride of infidelity. Afterward he is so simply and insufferably cruel and Darnell's reaction to him so honest and pained we have to wonder, again, what exactly we're supposed to make of this. This feels too serious to brush off with a few laughs.

When De Carter finally takes the stage to conduct, he imagines what he might do to rectify the situation of his wife's affair and he contemplates his choices we enter into sequences in his imagination. In the first scene the director plays the tone as if it were a murder mystery. Carter's wife is now wholly, and devilishly, complicit in her affair with Tony's secretary. For his revenge Carter executes a brilliant and elaborate set up of the two adulterers, offing his wife and framing his secretary for the deed. All set to the overture to Rossini's Semiramide he prepares the frame: dispatching his wife, sharpening the blade, and getting Tony's fingerprints on it. Carter orchestrates the crime to perfection so that one carefully timed phone-call from the lobby sets the events in motion to doom his secretary. The scene concludes with Carter enjoying a hilariously over-the-top cackle at Tony's trial.

In the second sequence, set to the prelude to Tannhäuser and maintaining a melodramatic tone, Carter is resigned to the wandering of his wife's heart. He does not blame her but rather excuses her and even writes her a check so she can go off with Tony and be happy with him, free from want. In the final sequence Carter is manic, challenging Tony to a game of Russian roulette.

Each scene matches the tone and tempo of the music and the concert hall serves as an effective point of departure. Now these stirrings of his imagination have so inspired Carter that he gives the greatest conducting performance of his career. . . from which he promptly bolts to try and setup the crime at his apartment. The ensuing string of mishaps is the lowest humor in the movie, a flurry of slapstick with running gags, a foot through a chair, and a pin in the buttocks, but Harrison plays it completely straight to hilarious result. Instead of orchestrating the masterful plot of his dreams he sits amidst the rubble of his room, mussed, foiled and struggling with the Simplicitas Home Recorder.

The ultimate reconciliation with his wife, again set to Tannhäuser, makes a sort of coda to the film, and to continue the analogy the whole film's structure is rather musical. We get a sort of exposition of all the traditional styles of comedy with a hodgepodge of characters and tones. This gives way to three variations on a second act which played straight are not funny in themselves but humorous as contrasting resolutions to the plot. He then settles on a full-fledged slapstick finale before tying the plot and romance up with a coda. The couple's love, which we really have to take for granted since it is not developed, may serve only to tie the whole mess of things together. The coda too with its Wagnerian background and exaggerated romantic speechifying is far over the top.

Again we must ask: what do we make of this? Is it a mess, uneven, revolutionary? This structure is more novel even than it appears due to how it unifies the highly disparate stylistic features of the movie and complements its character, and in this respect Unfaithfully Yours stands above other loosely structured comedies. The opening is a whimsical potpourri of styles, tones, and clichés. Only Carter's cruelty stands out too much. A normal film would have staked out its bounds and stayed within them to tell its story. You should need multiple films to contrast these styles but Sturges here with his "musical" structure fits them all in one movie.

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