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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic that ranks among the greatest of black comedies, 20 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Unfaithfully Yours [DVD][1948] (DVD)
It is easy to understand why they changed everything but the bare premise of this movie for the 1984 remake. After all, the 1948 original staggered beneath the weight of massive burdens. Its star performer not only consented but actually seemed to delight in delivering precisely articulated dialogue in long blocks, one after another--and all at crackling pace, too. Worse, Preston Sturges' clever, witty script plainly assumed that his audience possessed both general knowledge and willingness to pay attention for whole minutes at a time. Worst, Sturges' plot satirized both movie stereotypes and audience expectations.

Those 1948 audiences, for good and sufficient reasons of their own, did not turn out in droves nor did they shell out much money to see "Unfaithfully Yours." The 1984 production team did their very best to avoid that dismal fate by jettisoning Sturges' near-perfect script, ruthlessly dumbing everything down and shrinking the film to fit the talents of twinkly little Dudley Moore.

(Rex Harrison to Dudley Moore, what a falling off was there!)

Harrison plays British conductor, Sir Alfred de Carter, whom the script clearly expects the audience to identify with the real conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. The initial satirical thrust at audience expectations is that de Carter turns out to be a super-egotistical prima donna rather than the smooth, lovable and--yes!--twinkly Sir Thomas. By a series of satisfactorily ridiculous plot developments, Sir Alfred becomes convinced that his beautiful and much younger wife is having an affair with his assistant.

Sir Alfred has a high comedy encounter with a detective played by Edgar Kennedy, one of the finest second bananas in movie history. The detective does his level best to convince the wronged husband to ignore or forgive his wife's little failings, lest he lose far more than he can ever hope to gain from shallow, trifling revenge. In the course of the scene it becomes clear that the detective had not taken his own advice in the past and now bitterly regrets it. This is a wonderful scene, and probably Kennedy's last hurrah on the screen, for he died shortly thereafter--a perfect mixture of hilarity and wistfulness.

The egotist brushes aside the warnings of the detective and transforms himself into Othello's younger brother. Before, he had been over-generous and almost too-eloquent for belief with his loving words; now, he sneers and derides. If he does not quite get around to demanding that his bewildered wife hand over a handkerchief, it is only because time is short and he has a concert to conduct.

The performance begins with an overture by Rossini. The up-tempo music puts the conductor into a manic mood and his mind turns to a plot in which he murders his wife and casts damning suspicion on his rival. The elaborate machinations of the murder scheme satirize whole flocks of creakily overblown films from "The Bat" to "Philo Vance and the Kennel Murders." The second selection is the music of the pilgrims from Wagner's Tannhaeuser--a downer after Rossini. The conductor's imagination shifts from murderous revenge to world-weary forgiveness as it satirizes the emetic nobility of films such as the often-remade "Four Feathers." Finally, a Tschaikovsky piece moves Sir Alfred's thoughts to grim competitiveness. He will challenge his younger rival to a game of Russian roulette with his wife as a reluctant witness--think of about half the films made by John Barrymore or Doug Fairbanks, Jr.

After the concert, the conductor rushes off to his home to prepare for his elaborate murder scheme, only to come hilariously crashing against the harsh reality of ruthlessly hostile mechanisms, cheerily incomprehensible operating instructions and painfully fragile chairs.

In the end, the conductor's wife offers an explanation that allows him to dismiss all his suspicions and return to his original state of (illusionary?) wedded bliss.

With brilliant performances, crackling dialogue, smart plotting and fine physical gags, "Unfaithfully Yours" ranks with "The Ladykillers," "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and "Monsieur Verdoux," the best of black comedies.

Five stars.

Good as it is--and it is very good--"Unfaithfully Yours" might have been better still.

Rex Harrison, however brilliant he may be in the dialogue scenes, is not by any stretch of the imagination a physical comedian. Even though screen credit is given to a conducting coach, Harrison is painfully stiff as a conductor and as often as not behind the beat of the music he is supposed to be conducting. And the physical comedy sequence is weakened by the obvious substitution of a stunt double from time to time--not to mention the fact that Harrison's record player is far funnier than he is. In 1948 there was an actor of the right age, one who who could have gotten away with the conductor's dialogue and would unquestionably have been side-splittingly funny while conducting or going two falls out of three with the demon record player--Charlie Chaplin. Now THAT would have been something to see!

Then there is the script. The film ends on a subtly false note. As "Unfaithfuly Yours" stands now, Linda Darnell as the innocent wife neatly explains away every suspicion; she leaves not only her own virtue unblemished but also that of her unpleasant younger sister who throughout the film had been positioned as the eventual fall girl. At the very end of the film, the fully reconciled conductor and wife turn away to depart for a happy evening on the town.

I think that the studio or even Sturges, himself, cut a final scene to conform to the nervous dictates of the Film Code. I think that as the happy couple and their friends leave the hotel, they were intended to pass by Edgar Kennedy, the detective who had striven so hard to preserve the de Carter marriage. I think that Darnell and Kennedy were intended to make eye contact in shared acknowledgment that the pack of lies they had concocted to reassure Sir Alfred had worked. Then, at last, the conductor's straying wife would indeed have been Unfaithfully His.
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Location: Vancouver, British Columbia Canada

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