Preston Sturges’ UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948) – A great symphony of a comedy

 

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Though he directed a few more movies over the years, Unfaithfully Yours (1948) was the last great hurrah from one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy writer-directors, Preston Sturges. But Lawdy, what a way to go out.

The movie stars Rex Harrison in what might be seen as a kindler, gentler cousin of his egomaniacal diction professor in My Fair Lady (1964). Here, Harrison is Sir Alfred de Carter, a world-renowned symphony conductor who is still astoundingly infatuated with the woman he refers to as his “bride,” Daphne (charming Linda Darnell). The movie never declares how long or short of a time the Carters have been married, but judging from their passion level, one would guess they’re still in the honeymooning stage.

(The far more down-to-earth married couple, Alfred’s in-laws August and Barbara, are portrayed wonderfully by Rudy Vallee and Barbara Lawrence. Barbara gets all the great barbs off against her husband, who is only too happy to show his ignorance of them.)

One day, August accosts Alfred with the unfortunate news that he paid a detective to tail Daphne while Alfred was out of town. Alfred is so convinced of his wife’s fidelity that his reaction starts at outrage and goes haywire from there. Little by little, though, Alfred is given reason to think that Daphne might have needed some spying-on after all. At his concert that evening, Alfred conducts three pieces by Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, and with each piece, Alfred imagines the stylish revenge he will extract upon Daphne for her presumed cheating.

From this sober-sounding scenario, Sturges — as he always did — goes all over the place, from sparkling dialogue to skittering slapstick to rich drenches of sentiment. And the melange has never worked better than it does here. Just for kicks, take three of the movie’s set-pieces (the first of which — SPOILER! — is shown below): Alfred’s achingly funny dressing-down of August for siccing a detective on Daphne, the first fantasy where Alfred hatches an elaborate murder scheme, and Alfred’s drunken attempt to carry out the scheme. Three scenes of completely different tones, and they all plausibly fit into the same movie. Now try to imagine any modern-day comedy-maker whose work would display the wit of any of those scenes.

The Criterion Collection DVD of the movie does it full justice. It includes a seemingly irrelevant but nonetheless enjoyable critique of Sturges’ work from Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones. And an interview with Sturges’ widow Sandy, as well as copies of voluminous memoes to Sturges from uncredited producer Darryl Zanuck, demonstrate why the movie was initially a colossal box-office failure. Zanuck hounded Sturges to the point that the gifted creator of (to name but two) The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek began doubting himself as a writer, resulting in the final humiliation of Zanuck cutting the film on his own. Then a timely scandal involving Rex Harrison forever killed the box-office chances of a black comedy starring Harrison as an ostensible woman-murderer.

Happily, Unfaithfully Yours, like Chaplin’s similarly dark Monsieur Verdoux, survived its prudish times and has become renowned as a great movie. Alfred’s take on Delius might be delirious (as professed by one of his fans, played by the great Sturges alumnus Edgar Kennedy)…but Sturges himself remains stupendous.

THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (1944) – Preston Sturges’ Christmas gift to the world

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Small-town girl Trudy Kockenlocker (reflect on that name for a moment) is torn. Trudy (Betty Hutton) wants to give a good time to the soldiers who are having a farewell party before leaving to fight in the war. But the small-town part of her regrets once again turning down a date with well-meaning 4-F-er Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), who has longed for Trudy ever since they were kids.

(And Trudy’s brusque father, Constable Edmund Kockenlocker [William Demarest], would prefer to see Trudy and her younger sibling Emmy [Diana Lynn] locked up in chastity belts until their honeymoons.)

Trudy takes the worldly way out and wishes the soldiers well all night long. This results in a bump on the head, a quickie marriage to some soldier whose name she can’t quite place (“Ratzkywatzky? I know there’s a ‘Z’ in it somewhere”), and yet another bump — the kind that’s the outcome of a marriage you can’t quite remember. All of this quite rattles the good citizens of Morgan’s Creek — particularly Norval, who usually has a bad case of the nerves on his good days.

All of this results in risque, just-this-side-of-bad-taste comedy that left many contemporary censors, critics, and moviegoers in (often delightful) shock (it’s stated that the movie often played to SRO houses in its day) and still leaves you wide-eyed and laughing with its refreshing frankness. This movie looks as though it was filmed for about 50 cents, and it really doesn’t matter — because, as with the best movie comedies, all you really want is a camera to follow the characters around and watch as they get deeper and deeper into their mess. And that’s pretty much what writer-director Preston Sturges does; you can almost see him behind the camera, licking his chops as his actors make the most out of every situation and pratfall.

As for those actors, what’s not to like? Hutton and Lynn are thoroughly winning as they hatch their schemes under the lurking eye of their assertive father. Bracken takes a character who’s potentially grating and gives him an undercurrent of naive charm. Demarest is superbly blustery (and who knew he could take such falls over and over?). There’s always one scene in each of Sturges’ movies that ensures it for posterity. I couldn’t resist embedding this movie’s highlight/scene below. It’s the one where the constable/father gives a very threatening speech to his potential son-in-law, who is already near hysterics from all of the movie’s goings-on.

Sturges brings the story to a head right on Christmas Eve. That’s enough for me to qualify it as my favorite Christmas movie ever. It’s a miracle, all right — a miracle of comedy.

THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) – Nothing but a bad habit

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The following is my entry in the You Must Remember This…A Kiss Is Just a Kiss Blogathon, being hosted Feb. 13-14, 2016 by Lesley at the blog Second Sight Cinema. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ ruminations on a variety of kisses that occurred in movies from the dawn of cinema through 1980!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

It’s shameless, that’s what it is.

The set-up: We’ve spent the movie’s first few minutes learning about Tom and Geraldine “Gerry” Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert). Tom is a failed inventor. Gerry has been perfectly willing to use her feminine wiles to help Tom on the road to success, but Tom wants to make it on his own merits, which is mostly why he’s a failed inventor.

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Tom and Gerry have just returned to their New York penthouse after a joyless dinner in which they’ve pondered ending their marriage of five years. Both of them have been imbibing in order to ease the pain, Gerry having imbibed slightly more than Tom.
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(“And when love’s gone,” Gerry adds, “there’s nothing left but admiration and respect.” What a terrible thing to have as the only pillar left in your marriage!)

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Gerry tries to unzip the back of her dress, but she is in no state to do so. Tom says that if she’ll come around into the light, he’ll help her. Strangely enough, a major portion of that light appears to have fallen into Tom’s lap, since that is where Gerry lands. “You don’t think this is a little intimate, do you?” Tom quietly snarks. “Doesn’t mean anything to you anymore to sit on my lap?”

“No,” Gerry lightly protests.

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Tom now has Gerry’s back as a target. It’s too tempting. “Or if I kiss you there? Or here? Or here?” says Tom, planting his lips on a number of biological locations familiar to Gerry. One kiss too many, and Gerry complains, “You know I’m ticklish!”

“Then why is your breath coming faster?”

“Because you’re squeezing me!”

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You got that right, sister. One last squeeze, and Tom and Gerry end up in an embrace that literally curls Gerry’s toes and sends Victor Young’s musical score into stringy ecstasy.

“Almost nothing?” Tom reiterates.

With her last ounce of coherency, Gerry agrees, as Tom delivers her up the stairs with the same manful intentions that Rhett Butler had for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. “Nothing but a bad habit,” Gerry murmurs, and as Gerry keeps coming up with new synonyms for “bad,” the scene quietly fades.

I couldn’t tell you if this scene was the inspiration or template for movie love scenes to come, but if it wasn’t, it should have been. Absolutely shameless — and would that countless other love scenes had been as flawlessly shameless as this one is.

(When it comes to The Palm Beach Story, I am a self-designated cheerleader for this gift from the movie gods. Click here to read my complete review of this beautiful movie.)