Thursday, July 14, 2005

Unfaithfully Yours & Palm Beach Story

Unfaithfully Yours came near the end of Preston Sturges' remarkable yet brief Hollywood career. By 1948, Sturges had written and directed all of his most notable and famous films, including 1941's unbelievable one-two knockout The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels. At the height of his powers during WWII, he was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. And it's not hard to see why - Sturges' best films are timeless classics, comedies that remain as fresh, energetic and engaging and any contemporary film.

By the late 40's, Sturges had left the Hollywood system to produce his own films independently, and he had become known around town as something of a difficult, perfectionist alcoholic. His last films, including Unfaithfully Yours, are frequently remembered as missteps, a slow unraveling of a once great talent.

Well, there may be some truth to that. Yours isn't quite up to the standard set by the best Sturges' films, including 1942's immensely sharp satire The Palm Beach Story. But it's still a pretty fantastic and very funny film, a jet-black comedy with a surprising amount of edge for 1948 and a great lead performance from Rex Harrison (best remembered today for Doctor Doolittle).

Most Sturges films reflected his somewhat cynical view of marriage (he would marry four times in his life). Though the films always wind up on the side of true love and happy matrimony, the characters frequently exhibit a certain amount of casual recklessness about their partnerships, sometimes even veering on contempt.

Unfaithfully Yours opens on an almost ridiculously happy couple, Sir Alfred De Carter (Harrison) and his lovely wife Daphne (Linda Darnell). He's a conductor preparing for a large recital, and she's his happy and devoted spouse. Right before the concert, De Carter is visited by his brother in law (Rudy Vallee) who has some earth-shattering news.

There has been a terrible (and highly unlikely) miscommunication. De Carter asked his brother-in-law to "look after his wife" while he was out of town on business, which the brother-in-law misinterprets, causing him to hire a private detective to physically "look after his wife." And what has the private detective found?

Evidence that the Lady De Carter visited a young man in her nightgown late one evening for a full half-hour.

Though De Carter throws his brother-in-law out, angry at even the insinuation that his wife has been unfaithful, the charge eats away at him during the concert. The concert itself provides the climax for the film - as De Carter conducts, and we hear the orchestra play a variety of pieces, he fantasizes about the different ways he could handle his cheating wife.

In the longest and most outrageous scenario, he plans a complicated scheme to murder his wife and frame her lover. It's actually a pretty clever plan, albeit unreasonable. In another scenario, De Carter imagines himself forgiving Daphne, coming to an understanding about her need for a younger partner, and even providing her with funds to go and start a new life without him.

These are masterful sequences, with Sturges keeping the classical music running constantly in the background (and even lining up with the on-screen action occasionally) to keep a distinct sense of time and place within the fantasy. And much of it is very funny, with Sturges using Harrison's naturally proper and somewhat cooly stoic British manner to great comic effect.

The film's strange final act, which probably causes most of the controversy about its level of quality, is composed entirely of a long slapstick sequence featuring only Harrison. De Carter attempts to genuinely enact his murderous plan in reality, but of course nothing goes the way it is supposed to, and he winds up nearly destroying all of his home furnishings in the process.

And the film ends on an unexpectedly dark note. Even though De Carter finds out his suspicions were wholly unmerited, he resolves never to tell his wife anything about this dreadful day. She's so wonderful and pure, there is no purpose in sharing anything so twisted and dark with her.

This is an odd conclusion. It seems to insist that these feelings will linger, unresolved, forever within De Carter's mind. He resolves that he will no longer think ill of his wife, but it's reasonable enough to expect that, should this same situation repeat itself in the future, he would once again consider at least the possibility of her commiting adultery.

In other words, nothing much has been learned or gained through the experience of the film, and considering that it almost all takes place within the protagonist's head, you could almost say nothing happens in the film at all. It's a pretty remarkable feat, really, to make a film that's at essence so inconsequential, and that remains so unresolved at the end, but I guess that's why Sturges is one of the greats.

One of the other pleasures in watching Sturges films is seeing his stock company of actors take on multiple roles. Much of the cast of Unfaithfully Yours, including Rudy Vallee and Torben Meyer, likewise appeared in 1942's The Palm Beach Story.

That film, like Unfaithfully Yours, explores a marriage on the rocks. In this case, it's Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert). Yeah, I know, Tom and Gerry. I'm almost positive this film pre-dates the cartoons, so it's probably just a coincidence.

Anyway, Tom is an inventor with a wacky idea about an elevated airport to be constructed over a major city. It seems screwy, but he insists that with a donation of $100,000, it can become a reality. Of course, Tom has no way of actually getting his hands on that much scratch.

But maybe Gerry does. She's a pretty good looking girl, and has already trained herself in the art of taking rich suckers for a ride, so she thinks that by divorcing Tom and marrying some wealthy schlub, she can earn the money.

Which brings us to Palm Beach. Gerry has run off and gotten a quickie divorce from Tom, to kickstart her financial plan. Tom, of course, follows her down there to win her back. It's there that they meet John D. Hackensacker (Vallee) and his sister (Mary Astor), heirs to a massive fortune who happen to also be unlucky in love.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out where this is going. Hackensacker falls madly in love with Gerry, and his sister likewise goes nuts for Tom (whom Gerry has introduced as her brother, the oddly-named Captain McGlew).

This is vintage Sturges. It's a wild farce, highlighted by falsely-assumed personalities (as in The Lady Eve) and unfortunate coincidental mistakes (as in Unfaithfully Yours). It's obviously shares a somewhat cynical view of marriage as an institution, and includes a good deal of class-conscious satire.

But it's really the dialogue that makes the movie. I think that's what Unfaithfully Yours is missing. I love the style, the music, the tone and the central Rex Harrison performance, but at times the language is a bit forced or awkward (although there is the occasional well-turned phrase). But all the characters in Palm Beach Story express themselves in interesting, clever and amusing ways. In particular, Mary Astor's fast-talking heiress is a delight, possibly inspiring the Maude Lebowski character (played by Julianne Moore) in the Coen Brothers Big Lebowski.

Most notable in terms of social commentary is the long travel sequence, when Gerry tries to get to Palm Beach despite having no money. She hitches a ride with a group of millionaire hunting enthusiasts known as the Ale and Quail Club. These rich old bastards are completely insane drunks, who cavalierly begin firing their rifles throughout the train after having too much to alcohol, with utter disregard for passenger safety.

At one point, they start harrassing a black porter (played by an actor unfortunately referred to be the nickname "Snowflake") and firing their guns at him. I bring this scene up, and the actor's race, because the scene carries a different dynamic than most other scenes involving black servants of the time. Usually, the black character is held up for scorn as a simpleton, but in this case, we're meant to sympathize with the unfortunate porter and to laugh at the self-involved, drunk and foolish old millionaires.

It's a rare instance in an old film of class consciousness (the average member of a 1942 movie audience could relate better to the day-to-day reality of a train porter than a millionaire) over racial consciousness. Interesting...

Anyway, these are both great movies. Sturges is among American comedy's absolute finest filmmakers, and now that Unfaithfully Yours is available on a pristine Criterion DVD hosted by ex-Monty Python member and overall smart guy Terry Jones, there's pretty much no excuse for not having seen it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just saw the Palm Beach Story, and when I heard Mary Astor's character's special way of talking, I instantly thought: Maude Lebowski. It is more than likely she was the inspiration, and as another blogger pointed out, the Toto charachter in Palm Beach Story could also be the inspiration for Donny in the Big Lebowski. The Coen Bros. have apparently been open about their love of Sturges, and the title "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" comes from Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.