Unfaithfully Yours (no, not that ghastly 1984 remake with Dudley Moore) marked the end of Preston Sturges’ meteoric career in terms of fully formed projects—and what a spectacular farewell it is. It’s easy to see why the film flopped when it came out in 1948; it was way ahead of its time. That was not an era attuned to black comedy involving attempted murder, attempted suicide and suspected infidelity—not to mention a movie grounded in three pieces of classical music. It was simply too sophisticated all the way around. It seems a lot less bizarre—but no less creative—today. Rex Harrison stars as English symphony conductor Sir Alfred De Carter, who—along with his uptight brother-in-law (Rudy Vallée) and a private detective (Edgar Kennedy)—becomes convinced that his considerably younger wife (Linda Darnell) has been unfaithful. During a concert, he fantasizes how to handle the situation, envisioning a murder to Rossini, forgiveness to Wagner and suicide to Tchaikovsky. The real trouble begins afterwards, when he tries to put each imaginary scenario into practice. Let’s just say his fantasies are more successful than his attempts. It’s a perfect comedy blend of some of the cleverest dialogue you’re ever likely to hear and the broadest physical comedy imaginable.
In many ways, the film is the logical outgrowth of Sturges’ obvious interest in music. From the very beginning of his directorial career in 1940 with The Great McGinty, Sturges showed a keen intelligence in his choices of music—something that became more pronounced with his use of the pop song “Penthouse Serenade” as a recurring theme in his next film, Christmas in July. Rossini cropped up in both The Lady Eve (1941) and Sullivan’s Travels (1941). And he used Rudy Vallée’s “Goodnight Sweetheart” to lampoon both the actor/singer and his character in The Palm Beach Story (1942). It was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually make a movie that was actually grounded in music—and his reaction to it. It may not have been inevitable that it would be this good or this multi-layered, but it isn’t surprising. It represents his own love affair with it and his approach to it, as voiced by Sir Alfred in the film itself, “There’s nothing serious about music. It should be enjoyed flat on your back with a bottle of beer in one hand and as many pretty girls about as possible.”
To a very large degree, that line sums up Sturges’ approach to movies, too. He had a list of things that he felt worked well with audiences—ending with the dictum that “a pratfall is better than anything,” and his films attest to this. Legend has it that the Oscar he won for the screenplay for The Great McGinty was used as a doorstop, but that he kept a statue of the hindquarters of a horse on his desk. He was an improbable mixture of the sophisticated and the low-brow. He wrote some of the most literate and witty dialogue the movies have ever known (only the Coen Brothers have ever managed to capture some of its tone), but he’d punctuate that dialogue with physical comedy of the broadest nature, thereby building a laugh on a laugh. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Unfaithfully Yours—one of his funniest, most sophisticated and most slapstick-infused films.