Friday, September 18, 2009

Unfaithfully Yours: The First Full-Length Live Action Looney Tunes Feature

Decades before Space Jam was released into an unprepared universe, a bold, visionary film premiered.  This monumental movie dared to take the silly spirit and elastic energy of the immortal Looney Tunes shorts and stretch their inherent madness to a robust feature length.  This cinematic gamble confidently blended the caustic wit of Foghorn Leghorn with the violent outbursts of Yosemite Sam; the anarchy of Daffy Duck with the destruction of the Tazmanian Devil; the black humor of Bugs Bunny with the relentless obsession of Wile E. Coyote.  Being so far advanced in terms of its humor, subject matter and performance, the film was a huge flop upon its initial release in 1948.  Only now with the advancements in the fields of science and cartoons can we appreciate this tour-de-force in all of its glory.

So the film was live action and was produced at Twentieth Century-Fox instead of Warner what? Unfaithfully Yours is a loony toon through and through.  The story of a famous concert conductor who suspects his wife of adultery and plots out three distinct futures, was conceived by writer/director Preston Sturges in the early 1930's. On several occasions he tried to mount a production but was not given the green light until after he had successfully created a string of box office hits including such acknowledged classics as The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, and the Palm Beach Story. His increasing fame gave him the clout to finally helm the feature that had intrigued him for so long. 

The story of the vengeful conductor had come to Sturges as he was writing a comedic scene to the sound of an incongruously sad song playing on the radio.  It is the resulting marriage of music and movement in Unfaithfully Yours that is the most obvious connection with a Looney Tunes short.  There are three distinct set pieces in the film, each one a fantasy scored to an appropriate piece of music (Wagner, Rossini, Tchaikovsky) that dictates exactly where the scene will go.  Many moments in the movie are akin to the cohesion that Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones found with Carl Stalling's deft compositions.  A highlight of this collaboration is the fantastic Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd short "Rabbit of Seville".   Jones's own riff on Wagner, the Merrie Melodie entitled "What's Opera Doc?" is arguably the greatest cartoon of all time. 

Much of the blame for the initial failure of Unfaithfully Yours is attributed to the utterly bleak, black humor that pervades the film.  None of the characters are remotely sympathetic and their actions are across the board, despicable.  What was seen as a mistake when performed by the esteemed likes of Rex Harrison, was a source of strength in the Looney Tunes canon.  Characters routinely ridiculed and maimed their co-stars with guiltless ease, all to enjoyable, comic effect. Backstabbing and double crossing were the modus operandi of most Looney Tunes shorts, be it Sylvester the Cat's constant conniving or Bugs Bunny's hilariously mean-spirited antics with any number of adversaries. In a world that now has such prodigiously black humorists as the Coen brothers, it may be difficult to realize how unique the approach to Unfaithfully Yours was sixty-one years ago.

The final third of Unfaithfully Yours, brings the chaos at the heart of a Looney Tunes short to the forefront with the depiction of Rex Harrison's fantasies realized.  The full folly of human nature is on display and the resultant destruction is worthy of the best cartoons have to offer.  To witness the demolition of an apartment by one determined, wordless man is Wile E. Coyote personified. 

Like Pennies from Heaven, another misunderstood and woefully underrated Metro Classic, Unfaithfully Yours is a groundbreaking, intelligent work that deserves to be placed alongside the best known titles in cinema history.  Sometimes context is everything. 

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