The aeroplane is late, and the folks waiting for it are growing ever more agitated, especially Hugo Standoff (Lionel Stander), as he is the manager for the world famous conductor Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) - he's a passenger on it. After a verbal altercation with the desk clerk, they are relieved when it arrives from out of the fog and de Carter, his adoring wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) and her sister Barbara (Barbara Lawrence) with her prissy husband August (Rudy Vallee) are reunited. Now they can get them to a hotel and prepare for Alfred's next job, he being an orchestra conductor considered one of the best in the world. First stop is the bedroom, as he and Daphne have not seen each other for a while, but what if he heard some news that questioned their wedded bliss?
Unfaithfully Yours was meant to be a fresh start for writer and director Preston Sturges, whose meteoric rise to success in the nineteen-forties remains both an inspiration for the talented, and a warning of how all that can slip through your fingers through a combination of bad luck and ill-conceived choices. On paper, this sounded ideal, a comedy about a supposedly calm and collected fellow who falls to pieces and allows his explosive temper to get away from him when he suspects his beautiful wife of having an affair, but in practice a number of factors meant it didn't chime with audiences and it flopped so badly that Sturges' career never really recovered.
However, the years have perhaps been kinder to the film than might have originally been predicted, with many finding it one of the director's best efforts, unfairly maligned now the controversy around it has fallen back into the mists of time. The main controversy was that Rex Harrison's original leading lady here was to have been Carole Landis, the appealing yet fragile star who he was conducting an affair with; when that didn't work out Sturges cast the delighted Linda Darnell as the wife instead, another actress who suffered an unhappy life cut short in spite of her screen luminosity and popularity. Yes, cut short: as the film was to be released, the news came through that Landis had committed suicide, which made Harrison not exactly the public's favourite leading man.
Especially when he was blamed for Landis's decision to end it all, and when those who did actually attend the movie saw that the humour was intended to stem from Alfred's plans to murder Daphne, you can understand why it went down like a lead balloon with them. Indeed, although this was a comedy, the fantasies he has about coping with his wife's assumed infidelity are worryingly straightfaced, with the scene where he imagines slashing Daphne's throat almost shocking in its intensity - the Russian Roulette sequence later on is no less unsettling. What was Sturges thinking? It's clear enough that he had laughs in mind from the elaborate slapstick that arrives near the end at great length, but there's a tone here which suggests he was working out some issues.
There were other signs his accustomed mastery of his material was unravelling, just look at the supporting cast who in most of his previous works had been given many and varied chances to shine, speaking to the director's generosity, yet in this case we exist for far too long in the mind of de Carter and it's not a pretty place to be. It comes across as if Sturges was testing the limits of how much we can warm to a character who convention tells us we should be enjoying the company of, but in effect pushes us away as if he were a character in a serious drama, something adapting a Shakespearean tragedy perhaps, appropriate for the weighty music that accompanies the fantasies on the soundtrack but all wrong for jokes and giggles. At least Harrison was a good fit for this sort of business and responded to the challenges admirably, making Alfred ultimately a buffoon who really doesn't deserve the love of Daphne who bends over backwards to accomodate his mood swings, but when it seems more like a portrait of an abusive marriage, the genuine laughs don't quite compensate.