FILM / Director's Cut: Once more with feeling: Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day) on Rex Harrison's bumbling attempts to kill his wife in Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours

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The Independent Culture
Preston Sturges's 'Unfaithfully Yours', made towards the end of his career in 1948, shows the same event (Rex Harrison's attempt to murder his wife) several times with different outcomes. This unconventional narrative structure reappears in Harold Ramis's new film, 'Groundhog Day'.

In Preston Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours, Rex Harrison plays an orchestra conductor who plots the murder of his wife. In his fantasy it's as smooth as silk; every move is like a ballet that he performs perfectly. Then when he comes home and tries to act it out for real, it is one of the broadest, silliest, most disastrous scenes I have ever seen filmed. It never fails to crack me up. To me Sturges is maybe the best comic film director.

Rex Harrison could not be more suave and elegant in this role, or more dignified. He's dressed in tails and white tie - his vanity is such that he even wants to look good while he's committing this murder. And yet Sturges has him doing ridiculous things.

The first thing he does is to try to put on gloves - I know this scene almost as if it was made by me. But he can't find a pair that fits, and Sturges adds into the soundtrack a squeaky noise when he tries to pull the gloves on - it's not a sound that even occurs in nature. Then he goes through all his gloves, just throws them all on the floor. That's another aspect to the character. He's like a spoiled boy. He's so used to being waited on; he creates messes and then expects other people to clean them up. He's then going to make a recording of his wife's voice with a home-recording device, which in the Forties was a very expensive toy and a very complicated one. He knows the thing is stored up on a high shelf and the room is also very elegant; so, as he destroys it, the scene gets funnier and funnier. He keeps standing on delicate chairs with cane seats, and keeps putting his foot through the seat, until finally he pulls a box down. He can't figure out how to open it, so he has to tear it open. And it contains a load of games.

Eventually he gets the recording device and there's an insert shot of these extremely complicated technical instructions, with schematic diagrams and everything. His plan is that he will shout 'Help, help]', make a record of it and play it back at a higher speed so that it sounds like his wife. This will be his alibi. I think when I really lose it is when he finally gets it recorded and plays it back and it's even slower - deep and growly.

I was afraid to see the remake. I knew it wasn't good and I didn't want to have it in my mind because I so love the original. Sturges always has very real characters. Everyone's a comic and they come from all walks of life in his movies; he's very generous in that regard. And this film is sophisticated in that it's so witty and so well-crafted with brilliant dialogue. But it's totally unsophisticated in that there's often very broad physical comedy and strong farce elements. If I aspire to anything in my own work it would be that combination.

Harold Ramis's films include 'Caddyshack', 'National Lampoon's Vacation', 'Meatballs', 'Stripes', 'Ghostbusters' I and II. His new film, 'Groundhog Day', continues to play around the country.

(Photograph omitted)