Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
Rex Harrison, as Sir Alfred De Carter, in Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
Rex Harrison had one of his most pleasant filmmaking experiences in Hollywood and turned in one of his finest comic performances when he teamed with madcap auteur Preston Sturges for this dark slapstick comedy. His starring role as a pathologically jealous symphony conductor gave him a chance to demonstrate the suavity he had developed as one of the stage's best light comedians, while Sturges's intricate comic dialogue took full advantage of his classical stage training. And the sequences in which he envisions avenging his wife's imagined infidelity to the music of Rossini, Wagner and Tchaikovsky -- all pieces he is conducting at the time -- are a marvel of filmmaking, capped off with the slapstick that follows when he attempts to follow through on his plans.
Sturges had written the original story in 1932 when he realized how much music playing on the radio was influencing his work on another screenplay. With its darkly comic tale of murder and adultery, he couldn't find a studio to produce it until he signed a two-picture deal with 20th Century-Fox in the late 1940s. Even then, it was a hasty substitute for the project he had originally signed for, a Betty Grable musical eventually titled The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949). When he couldn't have the Grable script ready in time, he switched to his earlier script and, after rejecting titles like Unfinished Symphony and The Symphony Story, borrowed the title from an unpublished play written at about the same time he'd started working on the script that would become Unfaithfully Yours.
The film has all the Sturges trademarks -- intricate dialogue that demands scrupulous care from the actors (it could take 20 takes just for some actors to get the lines right) and careful listening from the audience, interspersed with moments of slapstick designed to infantilize even his most sophisticated characters. But it also has a darker side, with Harrison's character driven to contemplate murder and even suicide. Some biographers have suggested the script's more cynical tone derived from Sturges's fiery affair with actress Frances Ramsden, who had played a small role in his previous film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) and was briefly considered for the role of the wife in this picture. Sturges would later admit that Ramsden drove him mad with her mercurial moods. When he went to visit her he didn't know whether to expect a kiss or a blow from a frying pan. Another sign of the film's reflection of the director's own problems with women is the line Harrison delivers when making love to his wife, "A thousand poets dreamed a thousand years, then you were born, my love." Sturges would tell friends that was a line he used with several of the women in his life.
Sturges had originally envisioned Ronald Colman in the leading role. By the time he made the picture, however, James Mason and Gene Tierney were his first choices for the leads. Harrison had just returned from England, where he had shot Escape (1948), and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was eager to get him into another American made film before Harrison took off for Broadway to star opposite wife Lilli Palmer in Maxwell Anderson's Anne of the Thousand Days. He also relished the prospect of re-teaming Harrison and Tierney after the success of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
When Tierney read the script, however, she begged him to assign another actress, arguing that the wife's role was distinctly secondary and couldn't be expanded without hurting the film. The studio briefly considered Carole Landis for the female lead, but her personal problems, mainly caused by her affair with Harrison, made that a bad idea, and Linda Darnell was cast instead. Landis would commit suicide at age 29, just before the film's scheduled premiere. The studio held back the film's release to avoid the bad publicity surrounding her death, particularly since Harrison starred in the film as a man who dreams of murdering his wife.
Unfaithfully Yours features several members of the unofficial "Preston Sturges Stock Company," supporting actors who had appeared in numerous films for him. These included Rudy Vallee, Edgar Kennedy, Al Bridge, Georgia Caine, Robert Greig, J. Farrell MacDonald, Frank Moran and Max Wagner. In addition, Lionel Stander had worked with Sturges on The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Another Sturges regular, Jimmy Conlin, filmed scenes as Darnell's father but they were cut before release.
As with most of Sturges's films, the set was like a circus. Sturges always wore a red fez while directing, claiming that would make it easier for people to find him. Between shots he raced from one part of the soundstage to another, alternately coaching actors on their readings of his meticulously crafted lines, banging out jazz tunes on a nearby piano or joining cast members in impromptu barbershop quartets. Before shooting a scene he would run out to the lot and invite passersby to see it. Then he would sit stuffing a handkerchief into his mouth to keep his laughter at his own jokes from ruining the shot. Harrison and Darnell thrived in that atmosphere, with Darnell crowing that she had finally found a real director with whom to work.
Sturges did some of his most cinematic work on the film. The panning shot into Harrison's eyeball at the start of each fantasy sequence anticipates a similar shot in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). And for the fantasy scenes, he used distorted camera angles and stylized acting, requiring everyone but Harrison to play the scenes in a stiff, artificial manner. Harrison, a match for the director's perfectionism, pushed himself as well. He studied conducting so strenuously that the studio musicians, who appeared on screen for the rehearsal and concert sequences, told him later they were able to perform by following his baton. And he threw himself into the slapstick routines for some moments of frenzied inspiration. Meanwhile, Zanuck fretted that costs were rising. Even though Sturges brought the film in on time, the $2 million budget required by his working methods made it vital the film become a box office smash.
Unfortunately, it didn't. Although Unfaithfully Yours previewed well, on its initial release only the big-city critics liked it. Historians have attributed the picture's box-office failure to its black comedy, which was years ahead of its time, and the feeling that none of the characters were sympathetic. Sturges never really recovered from the film's poor box-office showing. Although he made two more films, a lot of the joy had gone out of his filmmaking. With repeated showings on television and in revivals, however, Unfaithfully Yours eventually found its audience and is today considered one of Sturges's and Harrison's best. A remake was planned as a vehicle for Peter Sellers, but when he died it was reshaped to star Dudley Moore and released, to little success, in 1984. A few years later, Harrison's use of an edited reel-to-reel tape as part of his murder scheme inspired a similar and more successful use of the device in Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993).
By Frank Miller
Producer: Preston Sturges
Director: Preston Surges
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Score: Alfred Newman
Cast: 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), Georgia Caine (Dowager), Robert Greig (Jules - the Valet), Isabel Jewell (First Telephone Operator), J. Farrell MacDonald (Stage Doorman), Frank Moran (Fire Chief), Max Wagner (Stage Manager)