934. Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges) – video essay

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This musical sequence is really like nothing I’ve seen in Preston Sturges’ career. Virtually absent of dialogue, it opens with this long, sumptuous tracking shot of a symphony rehearsal. Devoid of any overt narrative purpose, this shot has more of a documentary aesthetic in its matter of fact realism. Sturges himself seems sensitive to the documentary quality of this shot, and, never content to rest on one level of representation, he makes a joke of it here with these two harp players, one crocheting and the other filing her nails.

The way he follows the foreboding musical term with a plainspoken explanation is characteristic of his wonderful juxtaposing of highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities. But note how Sturges inserted a kind of laugh track at that moment, even if it’s diegetic to the moment, it still serves to cue the audience that there’s a joke in this scene. According to studio memos, this scene fared especially poorly with test audiences, who thought it too long, and even contemporary audiences may wonder what Sturges is up to by lingering on this orchestra the way he does. But just look at the visual rhythms created by the musicians as the camera tracks past them, creating a synaesthetic beauty. Sturges is clearly fascinated and enraptured with the symphony, the unison of so many talents under a common harmonic purpose, not unlike that of a classic Hollywood studio. And so building on that link, not only is Rex Harrison’s Sir Alfred de Carter the stand-in for Preston Sturges, the imperious maestro of the artistic production, the orchestra is where he finds a metaphor for his own domain of artistic mastery, the film studio. Just as Sir Alfred enters a personal hell of domestic distress over his wife’s suspected infidelity, Struges at this time was finalizing his divorce with his third wife. But what does not run parallel is that while Sir Alfred remains the undisputed maestro throughout the film, Sturges’s career was falling apart, this film being the second of three consecutive flops that ended his career. And so this film and this scene may amount to a personal fantasy of Sturges’ glory days of uncontested artistic mastery and brilliance.

This scene also features the most loving shots of people to be found in the entire film. Most of the featured actors in this film come off as tired stereotypes or hollow, underdeveloped foils for de Carter’s wit to lord itself over, but these musicians retain their dignity without having to say a word. In contrast Rex Harrison’s gestures look slightly exaggerated, but I’d say that this deliberate of Sturges’ direction, along with Harrison’s humming along to the music, there’s a vulgar pleasure he takes in this music which he’s not afraid to make plain.

I don’t think most audiences at the time, or even know, would find this scene funny or even meaningful – I think you have to be a bit inside Sturges’ head to appreciate why he makes as much of this rehearsal scene as he does.

That’s kind of what’s bittersweet about Unfaithfully Yours, the story takes place as much inside Sturges’ head as it does Sir Alfred’s. The film often sets Sir Alfred visually apart from others, and even in his most public moments, he is alone to himself and his demons.

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  • http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com Elaine Fine

    Don’t you think that intact performance of Rossini’s Semiramide is in the film to get the music into the “inner ear” of the otherwise musically less-literate movie audience in order to prepare Alfred Newman’s great parody of the music in the scene towards the end of the film?

    Also, in the orchestral shots, Sturges didn’t have to use character actors for visual interest because they were already there: note the faces of the piccolo player and the second bassoon.

    The orchestra, if you notice, never looks at Sir Alfred. If they did, they would be sunk. His beat is deliberately bad (Harrison had no sense of music: he couldn’t carry a tune), and I’m sure that Sturges (advised by the brilliant Alfred Newman) knew that musicians and music lovers would “get it.” Another joke: the two harpists in the Rossini were probably actors (or props). The Rossini doesn’t call for even a single harp.

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    Wonderful video..I loved it alot..The orchestra is not much good..

  • classical music

    I agree the orchestra still have to work more with their music, well you had mentioned all the things I want to say, they should created a music that will best fit the movie.

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