“UNFAITHFULLY YOURS” – Tchaikovsky and Rossini meet Noir City X, tonight at The Castro Theatre

sean-martinfield-18-august-2011
Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

NOIR CITY is one of San Francisco’s most popular film festivals. In the genre of Film Noir, it ranks as the most prestigious in the world. Now through Sunday, January 29th, Noir City celebrates its 10th Anniversary at the Castro Theatre with a jaw-dropping list of classic titles such as Naked Alibi, The Breaking Point, Three Strangers, and the original version of The Great Gatsby. The festival concludes with an all-day marathon devoted to San Francisco-based author Dashiell Hammett, the über creator of short stories and novels that are the wellspring of Film Noir. Included are both versions of The Maltese Falcon. The original adaptation from 1931 (screens at 1:20) features former Silent Screen stars Ricardo Cortez as “Sam” and Bebe Daniels as the femme fatale, “Ruth”. The definitive version from 1941 (screens at 9:00) starring Humphrey Bogart as “Sam” and Mary Astor as “Brigid” may prove to be the last time this classic of Classic is projected in 35mm. Why? Theatre owners are being strong-armed into going totally digital. During my recent interview with Eddie Muller – the producer of and the brains and brawn behind Noir City – I got the feeling that this sad and deplorable situation mirrors the fate of lost or decomposing nitrate reels from Hollywood’s silent era.

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REX HARRISON and LINDA DARNELL – Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

“It’s the economics of the Industry,” said Muller. “That’s the answer. In this culture, it is necessary for private individuals such as myself to campaign and lobby for the preservation of things that they believe have value when that value is questioned by the people who actually own that stuff. For me, it is no different than when you look at a spectacular piece of architecture and wonder how that building could be falling apart. Well, the person who owns it obviously does not see the same value in it. They may say, ‘I hope the building does fall down so I can get the insurance money and then build something there that will make me money.’ The same thing is true with movies.”

unfaitfully-yours

This Tuesday, January 24th, at 7:00, Noir City presents the 1948 screwball parody, Unfaithfully Yours, written and directed by Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). The film incorporates complete renditions and huge chunks of the most familiar and bombastic of Classical compositions, including Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini; Rossini’s overtures to the operas Semiramide and William Tell; and Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser.

The plot centers around larger-than-life conductor “Sir Alfred De Carter”, a tour de force role for then 40-year-old Rex Harrison. Foreshadowing his Broadway role as the imposing “Professor Henry Higgins” of My Fair Lady, Harrison is incredibly gaunt, romantically dashing, volcanic, and wildly histrionic. His character is totally in the grip of the green-eyed monster, Jealousy. He believes his young and gorgeous wife, “Daphne”, portrayed by the sumptuously beautiful Linda Darnell, is cheating on him with his personal secretary, “Tony” – a blonde pretty boy portrayed by Kurt Kreuger. We are introduced to Sir Alfred during an orchestra rehearsal and before the seeds of suspicion have taken root. Puffing on a cigarette and beating out tempo like a mad traffic cop, Sir Alfred works the musicians through a complete rendering of Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide. Though the opera was seldom staged,  it’s overture was extremely popular back in ’48, most folks being familiar with it from live symphony radio broadcasts. But director and screenplay author Preston Sturges seized an opportunity for cinematographer Victor Milner (Love Me Tonight, Cleopatra, It’s A Wonderful Life) to give movie audiences a bird’s eye view of a full symphony orchestra hard at work. Milner has the camera fly above and around the musicians, hovering over a section or catching a close-up of a comic piccolo player with the same ease and panache as recently televised performances from the San Francisco Symphony. The effect was huge and quickly establishes Sir Alfred’s pre-disposition toward sweeping mood changes, intense outbursts, relentless assaults, and screaming climaxes. The Preston Sturges “touch” shimmers throughout.

Click on the photo to watch Rex Harrison conduct the Overture to Semiramide:

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TORBEN MEYER – as “Dr. Schultz”

The story of Semiramide – a Queen of Babylon! – is a twisted mess of murder and plots to murder, complete with a royal ghost, near misses of incest, and fatal warnings by a high priest of the Magi. Appropriately, Rossini’s Overture is awash with riotous fury from the string section, strong gales from the winds, and an orgy of lightning strikes from the Size Extra-Large cymbals crashed with great aplomb by character actor Torben Meyer as “Dr. Schultz”. It’s straight out of Looney Tunes. So is the scene involving a madcap fire – underscored, of course, by the William Tell Overture.

The controlling gimmick of Sturges’ screenplay is that Sir Alfred descends into epic flights of daydreaming while conducting his concerts. The camera zooms into the pupil of his eye and we are are drawn into his melodramatic schemes of vengeance, humiliation, throat slashings, Russian roulette, and noble departure. No one in the orchestra notices that their conductor has gone temporarily bananas. The innocent wife, bewildered though she may be by his recent erratic behavior and even allowing for the fact that he’s British – “Alfred, you’re getting nuttier than a fruitcake!” – has never been more ravishing, sitting up in her box, clusters of diamonds shimmering in her hair. And the blonde secretary, Tony? Tony just keeps getting blonder as Sir Alfred slashes his baton through Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Opus 32 – the composer’s meditation on Dante’s second level of Hell, where adulterous wives spin out of control in an eternal windstorm.

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Kurt Kreuger, Linda Darnell, and Rex Harrison

Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser serves as the backdrop through another of Sir Alfred’s poetic visions: What happens after the concert, when we are home alone?

“Don’t cry, my darling,” says Alfred to Daphne as he takes a feathered pen and begins writing out a check for $100,000. “I couldn’t understand music as well as I do if I didn’t understand the human heart. Neither of you has done anything wrong. Youth belongs to youth, beauty to beauty. I want you to be rich, comfortable, and free. I don’t want you to have to worry about rent or clothing or food. Any of the un-romantic things that should always be provided for you. That little head was never made to worry. [Alfred takes Daphne's hand and starts to kiss it, dodging the 10-carat diamond ring she wears over her opera gloves.] Or these hands, to work. Only to love… so dearly.”

As though a tenth of a million could satisfy a girl like her, Wagner’s familiar strains will undoubtedly provoke many in the audience to recall another cinematic classic, “What’s Opera Doc?”, where lyrics were set to the same signature theme. “Oh, Bwoonhilde, you’re so wovewy,” sings the helmeted hero. “Yes, I know it,” responds the long-eared beauty, “I can’t help it.”

UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is paired with THE GOOD HUMOR MAN (screens at 9:15). In this 1950 release, Jack Carson stars as “Biff Jones”, a driver for the Good Humor Ice Cream Company. He is in over his head when he tries to save a gal-pal from gangsters and ends up accused of murder. A typical thriller from ace noir scribe Roy (The Fugitive) Huggins – except the final screenplay is by comedy genius Frank Tashlin, whose hilariously inspired high-jinks play havoc with film noir conventions. Co-starring Lola Albright, Jean Wallace, and George “Superman” Reeves. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.

Click here for ticket information: UNFAITHFULLY YOURS

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