Wednesday, June 29, 2011

THe Best Movies I have Never Seen Before: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) *** ½
Directed by: Preston Sturges.
Written by: Preston Sturges.
Starring: Rex Harrison (Sir Alfred De Carter), Linda Darnell (Daphne De Carter), Rudy Vallee (August Henshler), Barbara Lawrence (Barbara Henshler), Kurt Kreuger (Tony Windborn), Lionel Stander (Hugo Standoff), Edgar Kennedy (Detective Sweeney), Al Bridge (House Detective), Julius Tannen (O'Brien), Torben Meyer (Dr. Schultz).

Preston Sturges was one of the greatest directors of comedy in cinema history. His resume is full of great work – like the sexually suggestive The Lady Eve (1941), the Hollywood feel good movie Sullivan’s Travels (1942), the remarriage comedy of The Palm Beach Story (1942), the daring wartime film Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and the unmarried pregnancy comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). Sturges’ films were daring in the 1940s, not shying away from contemporary issues, and perhaps that is why they have lasted as long as they have. Unfaithfully Yours was Sturges’ last great success – although it flopped when it came out in 1948. Sturges was a temperamental director, with a rather large ego, and after a string of successes, her formed a partnership with Howard Hughes that took up a lot of Sturges’ time, although he only completed one film in three years with Hughes – and it flopped. Returning to the studio system, he made Unfaithfully Yours in 1948, and when it flopped, his career was all but over. He struggled and got two more films made before his death, but they are not well remembered. Unfaithfully Yours, while not quite the triumph of his earlier films, is still a remarkable comedy that puts most contemporary ones to shame.

Rex Harrison stars in the movie as Sir Alfred De Carter, a famous conductor, just arrived back in New York from a trip to Europe. He is delighted to see his beloved younger wife Daphne (Linda Darnell), who seems equally head over heels in love with him. But then his stuffed shirt of a brother in law August (the great Rudy Vallee) comes to see him. Apparently, Alfred had asked August to “keep an eye on” his wife while he was away, and August took it much more seriously than Alfred meant. When August was called out of town, he even hired a detective to follow Daphne. What the Detective found implies that Daphne maybe having an affair with Alfred’s young, good looking assistant. Alfred tries to put it out of his mind, not believing it for a second, but he cannot stop thinking about it. During that night’s performance, he imagines three different scenarios on how to deal with the situation – murder, forgiveness and suicide.

It’s these fantasies that make up the heart of the film, and they are played pretty much perfectly by Harrison. By all accounts, he was a drunken lout in real life, but there is no denying the comic skill he brought to his roles – even in films that aren’t very good overall (he kept the first two hours of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s bloated Cleopatra from going too far over the top like the last two hours with his performance as Julius Caesar, and while I do not like it as much as most people, and usually I hate sing talking in musicals, I have to admire his Oscar winning performance in My Fair Lady). His real moment to shine though is after those fantasies are over – and he tries to put his murder plot into action. What worked so smoothly in his mind, could not possibly go more wrong in reality, in an extended, wordless sequence of physical comedy that is worthy of Chaplin or Keaton.

If Unfaithfully Yours does not quite reach the heights of Sturges’ best work, it is perhaps because it is not quite as daring as his other films. You could remake either Hail the Conquering Hero or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek today, and it would still be controversial for the way it portrays those in the military (please don’t remake them though – no one needs to see Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller ruin the perfection of those films). In Unfaithfully Yours, his career on the line, Sturges seems to hold back just a little bit – putting a shiny happy ending onto the film, and never quite pushing the film to the darker extremes it demands.

Yet the film is still hilarious, almost from start to finish. Sturges had a light comic touch, and he brought out the best in his actors. So while even though Unfaithfully Yours isn’t his best work, it sure beats the hell out of almost any comedy you’re likely to see in the theaters today.

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