Unless it’s a biopic, movies based in the arena of orchestral music are kind of rare. When they do exist, they are usually super-serious movies about tormented talents suffering for their art.
Unfaithfully Yours, written and directed by Preston Sturges, uses it as the background for a dark slapstick comedy.
How dark a comedy? My mom, while watching it with me for this review, commented, “Isn’t this movie—kind of disturbing?”
Yes, it is. It’s also hilariously funny.
Orchestra conductor Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) and his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) are madly in love—so much so, that reunions at airports make their friends and family roll their eyes in a “get a room, already” fashion. After one such return home from a European tour, Alfred’s prim brother-in-law August (Rudy Vallee) informs Alfred that he “kept an eye on his wife,” as he had requested. Through Alfred only meant that he should make certain Daphne wasn’t bored while he was away, August took it to mean that he should have a detective follow her to make sure she doesn’t stray.Alfred is incensed by his brother-in-law’s stupidity and tosses the detective report away without looking at it.
When he finds out that the detective (Edgar Kennedy) has a copy, he visits him so he can destroy that one, too. The detective, who loves classical music and is a devoted fan of Alfred’s, lets slip that he observed Daphne going to see Tony, Alfred’s secretary, (Kurt Kreuger) in his hotel room in the dead of night.
Devastated by his wife’s supposed infidelity, Alfred begins to behave erratically. During an evening conducting three pieces of music, he first envisions himself murdering Daphne and successfully framing Tony for the crime, then confronting Daphne with the truth and gracefully stepping aside, then confronting the supposed lovers and challenging Tony to a game of Russian Roulette.
The audience is transfixed by Alfred’s conducting, but he ignores their accolades so he can rush home to implement his first plan—to murder Daphne and frame Tony.
What follows is one of the great slapstick sequences in film, as the scheme that went off without the tiniest hitch in Alfred’s mind goes wrong at every possible turn.
Yes, the gusto with which Alfred plots and executes Daphne’s murder in his mind is pretty disturbing. He himself mentions the “unwritten law” where a man has the right to kill an unfaithful spouse. But juxtaposed with the bumbling attempts to set up her murder, this talented, cultured man becomes, in the words of the phone operator he keeps bothering while wrecking his apartment, just “some jerk.”
While Harrison is mostly known for his exquisite verbal comic timing, he shows himself as quite adept at physical comedy, too. Outside of examples by masters of the genre such as Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, etc., his performance as Alfred wrecks his fashionable apartment during his misguided attempt to kill his wife is one of my favorites.
Along with Sturges’ signature fast-paced dialogue, the film features his usual satirical edge: his artist is almost endearingly self-involved, rich Americans are insufferable fools, and the war between the sexes sometimes only exists in the minds of his characters. He even ridicules the indecipherable instructions that invariably accompany electronic equipment.
The use of the music is close to ingenious, as each piece not only matches the mood of each fantasy, but also compliments what’s happening in each scene. The first, where Alfred plots to murder his wife, is set to the overture for Semiramide by Gioacchino Rossini, which concerns a woman who schemes and uses men for power. The second is set to the overture for Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg by Richard Wagner, which is about the renunciation of physical love. The third is Francesca da Rimini by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which is about an adulterous wife condemned to hell.
Unfortunately, it took a long time for the film to gain acclaim, not only because of its dark subject matter, but because it came out on the heels of actress Carole Landis’ suicide. The married Harrison was blamed by many for her death, as he had been her lover and refused to leave his wife for her. This probably negatively impacted the film’s reception, at least in part.
This is a shame, as the film is certainly one of the most unusual uses of its backstage setting. While it can be argued it’s a bit uneven for a Sturges film, it still shows many flashes of his unique brand of genius.