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Unfaithfully Yours (December 1, 2011)

The filmmaker Preston Sturges wrote and directed a handful of classic comedies in the 1940s that are, at least for me, the apex of American comic films. When we started the movies at the library four years ago we started with four Preston Sturges pictures. Unfaithfully Yours, from 1948, is the last of his truly great ones. We never showed it up to now because it was a 20th Century-Fox film and wasn’t on our copyright license. Now we have a license for that studio, thanks to the Friends of the Library, and now it can be shown.

After Sturges’ contract with Paramount in the early 1940s ended, he was in a partnership with Howard Hughes that produced one film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. In early 1947 Sturges signed with 20th Century-Fox, whose studio head, Darryl Zanuck, wanted Sturges to make a movie using the studio’s leading asset at the time, the actress Betty Grable, noted as being the pin-up girl most admired by the American forces in World War II.

The British Labour government had introduced a quota on the number of American films that could be exhibited on British screens. 40% of Hollywood’s profits came from foreign markets, and of that 85% came from the U.K. This move severely affected studio profits. Zanuck confided to Sturges that his Grable project would have to be in black-and-white, not in Technicolor. Sturges demurred, calling Grable “the natural child of color”. In the process he managed to convince Zanuck to start another picture first, using his “symphony story” which he had originally written in 1932, which could be filmed in black-and-white and which would not be a Grable vehicle. He started work on the script in October, 1947 and finished in December. Filming took place from February through April 1948. Sturges’ preview version ran one hundred twenty seven minutes. The final version Zanuck persuaded Sturges to edit to is now one hundred and five minutes. Brian Hutchinson, in one of the two books he edited which published most of Sturges’ film scripts, wrote “Zanuck’s cut was technically deft in that what remained afterward was still a superbly crafted and complete film.” It was released in November, 1948, and did not do well at the box office at the time, in contrast to Sturges’ earlier Paramount releases, which were generally big hits.

This is a comedy about revenge, built around fantasies, which, of course, are the stuff of which revenge is made. Rex Harrison, far from his start in films in Shaw or Coward plays, effortlessly stays on top of Sturges’ really very fast paced comedy. Linda Darnell and Barbara Lawrence, as the conductor’s wife and her sister, are beautiful. They remind me of nothing so much as Archie’s almost identical dark-haired and blond girlfriends Veronica and Betty in the comic strip. As always, Sturges lovingly selects and provides scripts for delightful supporting actors. In this movie they include Rudy Vallee as the conductor’s brother in law, Lionel Stander as the impresario, and Edgar Kennedy as the private investigator. I love it, and its reviewers generally love it too, but without, really, being able to say why. I’ll try though -- the structure is adept, the comedy ranges from clever dialogue to broad physical comedy, the characters are well-written and well-performed. It is, in short, a Preston Sturges comedy, and I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.