This essay was originally published in Cteq: Annotations on Film, no. 1 (1996), pp. 18-20, and appears here with a small number of minor changes.

Any brief, general, introduction to Preston Sturges would talk about him being one of the least-known major American directors, who during the first half of the 1940s, in a rarely equalled creative burst, produced a body of work as director-writer unparalleled for its irreverence, verbal wit and narrative inventiveness. For a short period, he was the match of Lubitsch and Capra. However, by 1945 his reign was over and Sturges’ decline was as rapid as his ascent. Released in 1948, Unfaithfully Yours was a box-office disaster with reportedly one of the lowest attendances ever recorded for an opening day. Sturges never recovered from its reception. Nevertheless, the film was well-received by critics on release. “An adroit fun fest from Preston Sturges. It is slick farce and will probably delight every audience segment”, said Film Daily. “It is too bad that Preston Sturges is not compelled by law to turn out at least one movie – maybe two – a year”, trumpeted Bosley Crowther in the New York Times1.

Today, because of its calamitous box-office reception, Unfaithfully Yours is largely overlooked at the expense of The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) and the other Sturges films of the early to mid-’40s that were more readily available. However, there is a growing band of admirers who call the film things like “Sturges’ most interesting achievement”, “a great musical joke” and “the last convincing show of the self-confidence and audacity on which Sturges had constructed his dazzling myth of himself”.

Why should this outrageously funny and inventive film, which has so much in common with Sturges’ earlier works, stall his career? Unfaithfully Yours had been made at significant expense and finished on schedule and slightly under budget. Sturges had not had a film in general release for four years since the poorly received and atypical The Great Moment (1944), and the new film was eagerly anticipated. (He had completed The Sin of Harold Diddlebock for Howard Hughes in the interim, but it had not yet had a general release.) Unfaithfully Yours was slated by 20th Century-Fox (Sturges’ new studio after his string of hits with Paramount and his unfortunate sojourn with Hughes) as one of its major summer releases, with a trade advertisement which read: “Timed to Bring You Your Happiest Holiday Season. Made for Holiday Grosses any Time!”

It seems several factors played a crucial role in the film’s failure. The most tangible of these is that Rex Harrison, the star of the film, was involved in an untimely personal scandal (reminiscent of the “Arbuckle” scandal) when his mistress suicided, changing his limited box-office appeal into box-office poison. Also, after initial poor box-office returns Fox panicked and changed the promotional campaign billing Harrison as starring in a murder mystery. In one sense it was; the film died a horrible death.

Other adverse influences are more open to conjecture. The film’s plot involves an orchestra conductor (Harrison) who suspects his wife (Linda Darnell) of infidelity. In three sequences, set to and influenced by the music of Rossini, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, he fantasises about how to deal with the situation. Sturges, who had always delighted the public by overstepping the bounds of good taste, may have, on this occasion gone too far. In his earlier films, his satire was softened by the ultimate acceptance of middle-class values (and, in its finale, that is the case here as well), but the image of the suave, sophisticated and cultured conductor brutally murdering his wife may have been too much for the public to accept. The murder is a fantasy the conductor has while on stage, but the transition from reality to fantasy is fairly ambiguous: for example, the camera slowly tracks back from a medium shot of Harrison, conducting Rossini’s overture to Semiramide, into Harrison’s left eye and through into his “mind”. The moment is magical and unforgettable and questions those critics who belie Sturges’ subtle but assured technical abilities as a director. The music continues, noisily over the ensuing dialogue featuring deliberately stilted performances – as critic E. Rubenstein points out, it is the conductor’s fantasy and he can make the characters behave as he would like them to2 Rubenstein, “Sturges’ Folly: The Fate of Unfaithfully Yours”, Sight and Sound, vol. 50, no. 4 (Autumn 1981), pp. 268-271] – and with the director on occasion using overwrought chiaroscuro lighting for effect. Everything hints at something not being right but Sturges does not give the game away, not even when Harrison gives a maniacal laugh, until the camera passes back out through Harrison’s eye and into the world of reality.

For first-time viewers unaware of the transition to fantasy, the effect is unsettling, especially when Harrison’s character cruelly and viciously slits his wife’s throat. They may have perceived Sturges as being unscrupulous and irresponsible when the deception became obvious. For those “in” on the joke, the sequence is hilarious. Here, in his most savage moment of black humour, Sturges is satirising the ludicrous plots of the then popular lives-of-composers-and-musicians’ films, with their made and depraved characters more in keeping with the Universal horror films than those of “serious” biopics.

Even if one were to accept the inability of audiences of the time to appreciate the film’s savage humour, there are many features that the film has in common with its predecessors. Sturges has, as usual, assembled his brilliant stock company of secondary players, “a horde of broken, warped, walked-over, rejected, seamy old character actors”3, including Rudy Vallee as the stuffy millionaire and Edgar Kennedy as the effervescent flatfoot.

Sturges’ narrative inventiveness is amply displayed in his representation of the same event from different perspectives, all imaginative creations of the same (Harrison’s) character. (Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon [1950] and its imitators use similar devices.) The manner in which Harrison’s character resolves the issue of his wife’s infidelity in a muddled combination of the three alternative scenarios is a treat. As with many of his films, Sturges’ sophisticated handling of sexual mores makes Unfaithfully Yours seem incredibly modern. There is no doubting Sturges’ scriptwriting ability, in which rapid, witty repartee oscillates with outrageous, absurd slapstick.

As already noted, this is Sturges at his satirical best. On a superficial level, Harrison’s Sir Alfred de Carter obviously parodies Sir Thomas Beecham, an English conductor well-known for his acerbic wit. Harrison’s fierce humour, as written by Sturges, is a match for Beecham’s but this verbal wit, Harrison’s character’s repressed violence and also his outlandish imagination also equates with Sturges himself, who admitted that “it was the opinion of almost everybody who knew me that I not only wrote, directed and produced the picture, but that I also played the lead”. “The film was autobiographical”, claims actress Frances Ramsden, “[i]t is Preston’s relationship with me… He said, ‘One of the reasons I’m frightened to have you is because every man who ever looks at you wants you.” The age differences between Sturges and Ramsden, and Harrison and Darnell, were comparable, and, in fact, Ramsden was initially going to play the lead before ill-health interfered. In this “self-portrait”, Sturges doesn’t spare himself. On the contrary, Sturges seems to relish his assault upon the arrogant, self-centred but brilliant artist. Perhaps he was attempting to admonish himself or exorcise some demons. If anything, this film simply magnified Sturges’ problems.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948 USA 107 mins)

Prod Co: 20th Century-Fox Prod, Dir, Scr: Preston Sturges Phot: Victor Milner Ed: Robert Fritch, Stuart Gilmore Art Dir: Lyle R. Wheeler, Joseph C. Wright Mus Dir: Alfred Newman, music by Gioacchino Rossini, Richard Wagner, Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky 

Cast: Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Rudy Vallee, Barbara Lawrence, Kurt Kruger, Lionel Stander, Edgar Kennedy, Al Bridge


  1. Bosley Crowther, “Preston Sturges’ First Release in 4 Years, Unfaithfully Yours, Bows at Roxy”, The New York Times (6 November 1948): https://www.nytimes.com/1948/11/06/archives/the-screen-in-review-preston-sturges-first-release-in-4-years.html
  2. E. [Elliot
  3. Manny Farber, “Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies”, Farber on Film: The Complete Writings of Manny Farber, ed. Robert Polito (New York: Library of America, 2009), p. 471

About The Author

Michael Koller is the executive programmer for The Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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