Preston Sturges is a freak, y’all. I didn’t know what this movie was about goin in. Something madcap? Sure, but a guy straight up having murder revenge fantasies at work? You okay, Preston? It’s a macabre premise, even for today. It made me realize that I’ve never actually considered what a “Screwball comedy” is supposed to be. Because it’s not just a comedy. It’s a spoof. Like how Sturges’ iconic Sullivan’s Travels is a spoof on the film industry, Unfaithfully Yours is a spoof on the mystery/romance/thriller. Often morbid, often hilarious.
Twenty, maybe even thirty minutes in, I feared this movie was going to feel like homework. Our lead, Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison), is a stuffy symphony conductor. Not the funniest profession or backdrop. We get the setup that Alfred has returned from a trip to his native England, only to receive troubling news from his brother-in-law, August (Rudy Vallée). Before leaving, Alfred asked August to watch over his young and beautiful wife, Daphne (Linda Darnell). But August went too far.
Instead of simply checking in on Daphne, August hired Sweeney (Edgar Kennedy), a private eye, to keep tabs on Daphne. Through his sleuthing, Sweeney comes to believe that Daphne is having an affair with Alfred’s secretary, Anthony (Kurt Kreuger). So does Alfred act like an adult and ask Daphne if she’s been cheating? It wouldn’t be a comedy if he did.
Distressed, Alfred nonetheless carries on with his next concert. But while this goes on, we watch as Alfred fantasizes various revenge scenarios, including one where he frames Anthony for murder and another where he challenges Anthony to a game of Russian roulette. Both scenarios play out in over-the-top fashion, with Rex Harrison cackling and chewing up as much scenery as he can swallow.
Accomplished thespian Rex Harrison is an inspired choice for the lead in a screwball comedy. There’s an amusing contrast between how ridiculous the scenarios are and the prim and properness of the famous award-winning Brit. This is a guy who is so British he says, “By Jove” — a phrase I’d never seen written until I watched this film with captions.
Alfred’s wife, Daphne, is his comedic foil, often rolling her eyes at his schemes and assertions. While Harrison acts like he’s the lead of some kind of Hitchcockian thriller, Linda Darnell plays her part grounded with a sarcastic bite. The rest of the cast is, for the most part, bumbling, which is funny when our lead is taking his dilemma so seriously.
The best part of Unfaithfully Yours is when Alfred tries and fails miraculously to set up his fake murder plot. Every step goes wrong, and no one goes along with any of his deception. You got to love seeing a guy who thinks he’s smart end up being the dumbest guy in the movie. It’s a good time. Definitely not homework.
The film takes a bit to get going and takes a bit to wrap up, but the midsection really works. There’s a reason we still talk about Preston Sturges, and it’s because he took very silly ideas very seriously. He never treated comedy as a lesser genre. Rather, he elevated the genre in a way that few have since. Props to you, Preston, you freaky genius.