Of Axes, Oxes, Turkeys, and Scapegoats

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) and Preston Sturges’ Comedic Universe


“I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”
– Jean,
The Lady Eve


“He was made for it. Like the ox was made to eat and the grape was made to drink.”
– Emmy,
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek 


“In ironic comedy we begin to see that art has…a lower limit in actual life. This is the condition of savagery, the world in which comedy consists of inflicting pain on a helpless victim, and tragedy in enduring it. Ironic comedy brings us to the figure of the scapegoat ritual and the nightmare dream, the human symbol that concentrates our fears and hates. We pass the boundary of art when this symbol becomes existential, as it does in the Black man of a lynching, the Jew of a pogrom, the old woman of a witch hunt, or anyone picked up at random by a mob…” – Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism


Unfaithfully Yours is a pitch-black comedy made by one of the most successful comedy directors of the Hollywood studio era. It takes the material of melodrama—a jealous man’s desire to murder the wife he suspects of unfaithfulness—and turns it into comedy in two ways: first, by mocking Sir Alfred’s fantasies of omnipotence, which constitute the movie’s innovative second act; and then by exhaustively demonstrating his incompetence when he tries, in the movie’s final act, to enact his murder fantasy. Unfaithfully Yours was not a commercial success, but it was undeniably the culmination of certain tendencies in Preston Sturges’ comedies. Sturges had been getting away with murder—so to speak—for years, but kept on exploring the interrelationship of comedy and melodrama, and of comedy and nightmare, until he arrived at a place where the moviegoing public couldn’t follow him. In order to see what’s distinctive about Unfaithfully Yours as a comedy, therefore, we have to get oriented in Sturges’ comedic universe. 

The major comedies that Sturges both wrote and directed up to the time of Unfaithfully Yours can be divided into two overlapping categories: the scapegoating comedies (Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero) and the sexual jealousy comedies (The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). The second category is the easier one to grasp, so I’ll address it first. Sexual jealousy is a recurrent theme in Sturges’ comedies, but until Unfaithfully Yours, what’s remarkable about Sturges’ treatment is the man’s passivity. Gerry, the protagonist of 1942’s The Palm Beach Story, leaves her husband, Tom, with the intention of finding an investor for his business venture by marrying a rich man; Tom pursues her and wins her back, but it’s not a typical Hollywood representation of marriage. The romantic couple of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek from 1943 is in an even odder situation: Norval Jones offers to marry Trudy Kockenlocker although she’s pregnant as the result of a wild night in which she used a date with him to cover for her appearance at a dance for departing soldiers. Both Tom and Norval appear to live by the advice that the private detective gives Sir Alfred in Unfaithfully Yours: take whatever a beautiful woman is willing to give you. Nevertheless, the audience is meant to feel their anguish—and Norval’s in particular. Though not, perhaps, to react with sympathy. 

Which brings us to the scapegoating comedies. As a comedy writer, Sturges’ instinct is to structure his comedy around a scapegoat figure, which is to say, a ritual victim chosen as if by lottery. He does this, in turn, in two ways: generating laughs through the slapstick abuse of a “patsy” figure or putting the hero in a situation that snowballs out of control and turns their fantasy into a nightmare. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek does both, as the homely, timid Norval’s dream of marrying Trudy becomes a nightmare in which he’s accused before the whole town of impersonating an officer and impairing the morals of a minor (for starters). In 1944’s Hail the Conquering Hero, Sturges uses the same actor (Eddie Bracken), in a similar setting, to expand upon the former dilemma: coerced into pretending to be a war hero, Woodrow finds himself surrounded by small-town citizens who revere him but who, he fears, will instantly turn into a furious mob if they discover his deception. One of the movie’s best laughs is generated by having a delegation consisting of the town’s leading citizens descend upon Norval’s mother’s house, their benign faces inspiring Norval with horror, as if serpent’s tongues might emerge from their tongues at any moment à la the climax of Polanski’s The Tenant

It’s hardly news that a certain kind of slapstick comedy (taken to its logical extreme in cartoons: think of the Itchy & Scratchy parodies of Tom and Jerry) makes us laugh at situations that are objectively cruel. The difference is that Sturges seems interested in exploring that cruelty and going wherever it takes him, even beyond the boundaries of comedy. And this cruelty appears, seemingly from nowhere, even in comedies that aren’t built around a scapegoat figure, in ways that go beyond typical movie slapstick. In Romantic Comedy in Hollywood From Lubitsch to Sturges, James Harvey calls The Palm Beach Story an “idyllic comedy about the cruelty of things,” noting its sadistic undercurrents, as in the meet-cute between Gerry and eccentric millionaire John D. Hackensacker III, where she steps on his face twice, grinding the lenses of successive pairs of pince-nez into his eye. However, Harvey omits mention of the most glaring confirmation of his thesis: when a drunken gang of gun-happy rich men, the Ale & Quail Club, morphs (not by much) from a rowdy but friendly bunch who adopt Gerry as their mascot into a lynch mob that essentially uses a Black bartender for target practice. Not mere racist tastelessness on Sturges’ part—although arguably that too—this is the most naked declaration of the scapegoating theme that underlies Sturges’ comedic imagination. 

I should clarify that I’m not accusing Sturges of having a sadistic streak, as a psychological quirk. Even if true, it wouldn’t be very interesting. Rather I think he tapped into the aspect of comedy that Northrop Frye calls the “savagery” of “ironic comedy,” as represented by the scapegoat figure. And if he was drawn to that aspect of comedy as a writer, it’s likely because of the paradox it presents. I hope, at least, that’s the reason for my own interest in this aspect of Sturges’ comedy—and not any psychological quirks. The happy ending of traditional comedy may present a more optimistic vision of human life than the ending of tragedy, but things can get pretty bleak before that resolution, and the genre is as thoroughly involved in violence as tragedy. 

But there are other kinds of violence seething under the surface of Sturges’ comedies as well. Take, for instance, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Here, instead of an idyll with sadistic undercurrents, we have a nightmarish scapegoating comedy with undercurrents of something even worse. The principal characters in Morgan’s Creek have a habit of spontaneously spouting macabre fantasies. Officer Kockenlocker responds to his youngest daughter’s sarcasm by inventing a murder mystery: “Listen, Zipper-puss! Someday they’re just gonna find your hair ribbon and an axe someplace. Nothing else! The Mystery of Morgan’s Creek!” Trudy tries to convince Norval that they should solve her problem with a double suicide, drawing her imagery from pulp novels with unhappier endings for “disgraced” young women than this movie: she first suggests drowning in the creek, and then, when Norval rules it out as impractical, gas. Norval’s frantic response suggests that he’s afraid her morbid mood might be contagious, as if she might imagine them to death. 

Violence in Sturges’ comedies, then, can come from one of two sources: from within the genre (the scapegoating theme) and from outside of it, but arising from within it as if the characters are inventing alternate universe versions of their stories that could occur in another genre—and that other genre is melodrama. In Unfaithfully Yours, this practice of creating alternate universe/alternate genre versions of the story becomes the subject of the movie. In fact, Sturges, in his autobiography, called Sir Alfred’s fantasies “prospects,” and explained that he thought of them as having been written and directed by Sir Alfred. Sir Alfred is a sort of writer-director who, during the movie’s middle section, devises three possible endings to it—none of which have anything to do with the ending that the real writer-director has planned. 

In Unfaithfully Yours, comedy and melodrama confront each other, with comedy getting the last laugh. In 1941’s The Lady Eve, another Sturges comedy in which, in Stanley Cavell’s words, the protagonist is a “stand-in for the role of a director,” they have a different relationship: The Lady Eve makes use of the inherent similarity between revenge melodrama and scapegoating comedy. In fact the two sub-genres are so similar that it’s not hard to find a revenge melodrama with virtually the same plot as The Lady Eve: Robert Bresson’s second feature, The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne from 1945. In that film, Hélène, a sophisticated society woman, is jilted by the lover, Jean, for whom she gave up her respectability; in revenge, she finds a well-bred, sensitive girl who’s been forced by circumstances into sex work, sets her up in an apartment, arranges for her and Jean to meet, and makes Jean believe she is unapproachable, all so that she can announce to him on their wedding day, “You married a whore.” The Lady Eve turns this plot into comedy by excising the female victim, instead having Jean play her own rival/bait, the Lady Eve Sidwich. Hopsie, meanwhile, as much a symbol of male obtuseness and vanity as Ladies’ Jean, is improved by an infusion of the female victim’s innocence. Even in the melodrama version of the plot, it’s impossible not to enjoy Hélène’s manipulation of Jean, and her punchline-like announcement practically brings on a cheer. This despite Bresson’s success in making Jean and Agnès’ love seem genuine and Hélène’s manipulation of Agnès seem not only callous but evil, and my lack of investment in the concept of the “whore.”

The dramatic structure of comedy is usually related to melodrama in some way: there might be a melodrama plot and a romantic comedy plot that converge (e.g. the gangster plot in Some Like It Hot; the infidelity/suicide plot in The Shop Around the Corner; the Soviet mission plot in Ninotchka; or the most pristine of all, the execution plot in His Girl Friday), or the romantic comedy plot might involve a melodrama-type deception (like Jean’s initial deception of Hopsie) that becomes a misunderstanding at the crisis (as in Ball of Fire). The happy ending of comedy is a matter of averting disaster, so there has to be a disaster to avert. A skilled comedy writer or director will mess around with tone, trying to see just how much darkness he or she can introduce without shattering the comic mood. The “purer” the comedy (i.e., the less reliant it is on a melodrama subplot or co-plot), the more it brings that darkness into the comedy. Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby have no melodrama plot, and neither do Sturges’ scapegoating comedies. Occasionally you might also see a comedy that makes use of a melodrama plot without altering anything but the tone. Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise is about a thief couple, Lily and Gaston, who target a rich woman, which causes trouble in their relationship when Gaston starts to fall for their victim. It’s a standard melodrama plot, but the characters relate to each other as though they’re in a comedy of manners.

The Lady Eve goes one better than Trouble in Paradise by using both a melodrama plot and melodrama emotions—even as the revenge takes a slapstick form. Squint, and it looks like screwball comedy, the ‘30s Hollywood sub-genre with which it’s usually associated, and which often gave a great deal of power to the heroine. But The Lady Eve only superficially resembles something like Bringing Up Baby: Susan Vance is a force of chaos, not a master manipulator, and she has no ill will toward David (on the contrary). What makes The Lady Eve different from any other comedy, and most melodramas, of the era is that the heroine’s actions are fuelled by anger. The fact that she herself can’t distinguish between her anger and her love (“I need him like the axe needs the turkey”) only makes the nature of the couple’s relationship more alarming. 

A notable difference between the scapegoating in The Lady Eve and in other Sturges comedies is that the victim no longer seems randomly chosen, but rather deserving of his punishment. Revenge melodrama presents a fantasy of power in response to an ego-annihilating slight that creates a sense of complete powerlessness. Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne and The Lady Eve bestow frankly incredible powers on their heroines, which the audience doesn’t question because it’s far too much fun to identify with them, much as the reader of a mystery doesn’t question the detective’s preternatural powers of ratiocination. Sir Alfred’s fantasizing, as Harvey points out, seems like an extension of the “fantasies of personal power” that Hollywood movies tend to gratify and that Unfaithfully Yours, by showing us the life of a famous, wealthy, brilliant “great man,” masterful at his work and masterful in his interactions with others, certainly does. But The Lady Eve indulges this viewer tendency to a much greater degree, considering that Jean’s omniscience and omnipotence are diegetic facts, whereas Alfred’s only operate in his fantasies. 

Alfred has less in common with Jean than with Hopsie, with whom he shares an obsession with the “purity” of the woman he loves, a similarity that prompts Sturges to make ironic use of the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” from Tannhäuser in twin scenes where they make pompous, mansplaining (avant la lettre) speeches forgiving the beloved for her indiscretion. Alfred is Hopsie in Jean’s position of revenge melodrama protagonist—at least in his own mind. But although Jean uses violent, even sacrificial language when describing her revenge on Hopsie, like Trudy’s teenage sister Emmy (Morgan Creek’s bizarre voice of pragmatism) when she tries to convince Trudy to marry Norval under false pretenses, she isn’t interested in committing literal violence against him. At least, nothing beyond dropping an apple on his head for no reason; anything worse than that the movie takes care of for her. Alfred is the vehicle through which serious (comic) violence erupts in Sturges’ comedic universe for the first time since the Ale & Quail Club, and it’s because this time the jealous man is the protagonist of the revenge melodrama. Alfred, however, is both the movie’s perpetrator of violence and its scapegoat: his aggression redounds upon him, like Wile E. Coyote’s. 

What Alfred and Jean do have in common is their role of stand-in for the writer-director. If the characters in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek are incipient melodramatists, imagining alternate universe/genre scenarios for their storylines, Alfred and Jean formalize this self-reflexive tendency and take it further, so that they “produce” a great deal of the movies they appear in. The difference is that Jean seems to be writing and directing the movie we are actually watching; her perspective is indistinguishable from the perspective of the movie’s author. Alfred, however, is making movies that contrast sharply with the movie he’s in, which results not only in a contrast between the genre of his fantasies and the genre of the movie’s “reality,” but also in the failure of his fantasies as melodrama: the audience shares the authorial/comedic perspective on them, not Alfred’s, which is that he’s the tortured hero of a Gothic melodrama. 

A comparison between two scenes will serve to illustrate the differences between Jean and Alfred as writer-directors of mini-movies. The first time Jean inserts herself into one of her mini-movies is after she’s launched her plan to get Hopsie to propose to her again, this time as the Lady Eve Sidwich. As she describes the proposal scene to her confidant, it materializes before us: the horse ride “through vine-covered trails,” the glorious sunset. The blocking is similar to the beginning of Alfred’s first prospect (the murder fantasy), with the woman directly facing the camera, the man behind her, so that only the audience is privy to her devious expressions. Jean frames the scene in a medium close-up, whereas Alfred’s more stage-like framing reflects the British theatrical tradition that informs his imagination. But the differences between Alfred’s and Jean’s movies go beyond the stylistic. As Daphne behaves exactly as Alfred predicts, so does Hopsie behave exactly as Jean predicts. But Hopsie, it’s clear, isn’t inside Jean’s fantasy: she is inside his. The sunset, horse, and girl (or rather “lady”) belong to the movie inside his head. And her role in the scene is not to reinforce this fantasy, as Daphne’s is for Alfred, but to disrupt it. Her whole purpose in the scene is to make little asides that derail Hopsie’s attempts at solemnity, and ironic remarks that he’s incapable of recognizing as irony. Although that’s nothing compared to the comedic effect of the horse’s restless intrusions (Jean’s omnipotence extends to control over even a scene’s “bloopers,” it seems). Jean, in fact, serves the same deflating purpose that Daphne (as well as Alfred’s entire physical environment) does in the final act of Unfaithfully Yours, only Jean is doing it on purpose, and savouring it. And like Alfred, Hopsie just keeps doggedly pursuing his vision of how things ought to be and the particular vision he holds of himself. 

Everything in the two scenes—Alfred’s first prospect and Hopsie’s second proposal—depends upon these questions of knowledge and perspective: the characters’, the author’s, and the audience’s. Alfred thinks the joke is that Daphne thinks she’s concealing something from him, when in fact he knows everything and is in complete control of the situation; the audience he imagines for this scene shares his knowledge and is thrilled by the cat-and-mouse game he plays with Daphne and Tony. But the audience of the movie he is actually in sees what he can’t see, the vanity that permeates these fantasies, as well as the inherent ridiculousness of melodrama. Alfred’s vanity isn’t substantially different from Trudy’s when she imagines killing herself in response to her dilemma, proved by her willingness to involve Norval; so it’s not surprising that suicide (albeit accidental) is Alfred’s third prospect, leaving him posthumously relishing the horror on the guilty lovers’ faces as they contemplate his fallen body. Melodrama is the genre that blows things out of proportion; comedy is the genre that asks, with Norval, “What the matter with bigamy!?” And there may be existential correspondences to these genres: you could say that jealous men murder their wives out of a lack of a sense of humour. It certainly betrays a tendency to take yourself too seriously. 

Alfred’s prospects aren’t merely ridiculous, though; if they were, Unfaithfully Yours wouldn’t test the limits of what an audience is willing to accept as comedy, which, as we’ve seen, Sturges comedies had been doing all along. I suspect what pulled audiences up short is not that Unfaithfully Yours was substantially more violent than Sturges’ previous comedies, so much as the fact that they didn’t recognize its framing of violence as comedic. Murder is a taboo subject for human (as opposed to puppet) slapstick in any case, but Sturges seems to be asking the viewer to find a melodrama murder funny; or if not to find the murder scene itself funny, at least to accept it as the basis of a comedy. And like the fantasies of Trudy and her father, the murder of Daphne shows the hallmarks of a macabre imagination that’s effective even in its pulpiness. What’s most horrible about the scene, though, is what the grisly detail of Daphne’s hand—reaching toward the camera, clutching convulsively at nothing, and finally going limp—tells us about Alfred: that even when he’s imagining murdering his wife, he pays attention to the aesthetics. His strongest and deepest emotions, his instincts, are thoroughly aestheticized. 

Which leads me to bring up a comedy that Sturges wrote and directed prior to Unfaithfully Yours that didn’t fit into my schema: Sullivan’s Travels from 1941, Sturges’ other comedy with an artist-protagonist. As artists, Sullivan and Alfred are opposites: Sullivan is a successful director of Hollywood comedies who wants to make an “important,” i.e. socially conscious, picture, until he realizes that comedy is already important because it brings pleasure to the oppressed; Alfred is a highbrow artist who already believes in the social importance of his art but is forced to confront the fact that it has no necessary connection to the ethical. In his meeting with the detective, Alfred expresses dismay that being a fan of classical music hasn’t elevated the latter’s mind, but what he learns is that his much more intimate acquaintance with it has done nothing to cleanse his own of monstrous imaginings. Of course the musical selections that accompany and give rise to Alfred’s fantasies are drawn from operas, or based on stories, that are full of violent and lurid material; in the case of Tannhäuser, Wagner’s music itself (though not the selection featured) was considered by contemporaries to be radically erotic. The respectability of opera that makes it a target for comedic mockery is skin deep, to say the least; as insubstantial as the line dividing community and mob. 

In Sturges’ comedic universe, art can’t get away from violence, and violence can’t get away from art. No matter how “primitive” the instinct, it expresses itself in highly conventional language; no matter how “civilized” the artform, it’s thoroughly saturated with libidinal and aggressive impulses. Nevertheless, no matter how low the artform, it can have a socially beneficial effect, which is a matter not of making human beings better, but of offering an escape from the suffering or tedium that’s part of our lives. The culmination of so many tendencies in his comedy, Unfaithfully Yours explicitly grapples with the centrality of violence to the human imagination, and Sturges’ art.