"There was nobody like her before or since. . . . In talent, in looks, in character, in temperament. Everything. . . . And very early it became obvious she was a brilliant actress."
—Henry Fonda on Margaret Sullavan
The actress Margaret Sullavan starred in only seventeen movies in her screen career, all but one of them released in the ten years between 1933 and 1943. I first saw her in Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) a comedy in which her accomplished performance—she expertly suggests the seemingly contradictory character traits of confidence and vulnerability, strength and fragility, maturity and innocence—completely won me over. I thought I knew the great American actresses of the 1930s studio era, but I had barely even heard of her and never before seen her in anything. I did know she had won the New York Film Critic Circle award for best actress for her performance in Three Comrades (1938) and had also been nominated for an Oscar for that performance (her only nomination).
So more than twenty years later, when I got the chance to see Three Comrades I made a point of not missing it. It is indeed a great performance in which Sullavan expresses many of the same paradoxical character qualities as in The Shop Around the Corner, but in a completely different context and to very different effect. Three Comrades is no charming Lubitsch confection, but rather an ultra-romantic tragedy directed by the master of such movies, Frank Borzage, for whom Sullavan made four pictures all together. Like Greta Garbo in Camille, Sullavan plays the mistress of a wealthy older man (although the movie is coy about the exact nature of their relationship) who falls in love with an innocent young man played, as in Camille, by Robert Taylor. Like Garbo in that film, Sullavan is a doomed tragic heroine dying of consumption. And she is very, very good. The entirely natural charm and undertone of wistful melancholy she projects makes it utterly believable that all three war buddies of the title would fall in love with her. Since then I've made an effort to see her in every movie of hers shown on TCM. Recently I was able to catch one of her earliest, The Good Fairy (1935), Sullavan's third movie.
The Good Fairy is, like The Shop Around the Corner, a comedy set in Budapest and also based on a play, this time by Ferenc Molnár. In it, Sullavan plays Luisa Ginglebuscher, a young woman plucked from an orphanage to work as an usherette in a large movie palace. Her character is immediately established as the personification of naïveté. She is first seen exuberantly telling a fairy tale—complete with a wicked fairy and a good fairy—to the youngest residents of the orphanage. She takes completely to heart the simplistic moral instruction she has received at the orphanage, including the admonition to perform one good deed a day, and sees herself as a real-life good fairy helping others realize their wishes. Few actresses could have made such a child-like character so convincing without making her seem childish, but Sullavan does.
No sooner is she out in the world than she is besieged by lecherous men seeking to take advantage of her obvious inexperience and vulnerability. Accosted outside the cinema one night by a glib would-be lothario (Cesar Romero), she escapes by claiming to be married and seizing as her mock-husband the first innocuous-looking man she sees walking down the street (Reginald Owen). He turns out to be a waiter at a grand hotel who, charmed by the girl, gets her an invitation to a ritzy ball at the hotel. Here she is approached by a horny millionaire (Frank Morgan) who immediately sets out to try to seduce her. When, with the help of her self-appointed protector the Waiter, she finally catches on to his intentions, she repeats the trick of claiming to be already married and while Morgan is out of the room picks the name of a lawyer, Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), at random from the telephone book.
I have so far described only the first fifteen minutes or so of the movie. For the rest, suffice it to say that the situation Luisa has created quickly lurches out of control, snowballing into a series of deceptions, misunderstandings, and impromptu coverups that keep the complications coming without letup. Luisa is required to keep all these multiple fictions spinning in the air like balls while at the same time falling in love with Marshall, following her philosophy of doing good deeds, being a good fairy by attempting to engineer happy outcomes for those in whose lives she has become involved, and preserving her virtue by evading the sexual advances of the various men pursuing her. The plot might sound like Lubitsch, but the result is like a Lubitsch movie on speed.
The screenplay is based on a translation of a play by Ferenc Molnár, whose novels and plays were the basis of many, mostly light-hearted, movies, including The Guardsman (1931), starring Lunt and Fontanne, Rogers and Hammersein's Carousel (1956), The Swan (1956) with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness, and Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961). But for the screenplay of The Good Fairy, the material was considerably reworked by Preston Sturges, and it is his hand more than any other that comes through in the final film. This is a movie driven not by a genteel Eastern European sensibility but by pungent, wit-drenched dialogue, double-entendre (when Luisa talks about leaving "the asylum," nobody realizes she's referring to the orphans' asylum), farcical misunderstandings, risqué sexual innuendo, and a frenetic pace that resembles the most breathless of Howard Hawks's screwball comedies.
One episode that bears the unmistakable stamp of Sturges occurs in the movie theater where Luisa works. After showing a couple to their seats, she is so captivated by the movie, which is already playing, that she sits down and starts watching it. This movie-within-a-movie is a hilarious send-up of an overwrought tearjerker, complete with edits and tracking shots. The scenes we are shown consist of a distraught upper-class woman being separated from her child and evicted from their sumptuous apartment by her stiff-necked husband for some unstated moral transgression. As she pleads with him not to reject her, he sternly repeats one word over and over: "Go!" Always pointing to the door, he says this at least twenty times—never altering his delivery or intonation—until it becomes absurdly funny. The scene has Luisa in tears, but the viewer in stitches.
The director, surprisingly, is William Wyler, whose specialty was adaptations of novels (by authors including Sinclair Lewis, Emily Brontë, Theodore Dreiser, Somerset Maugham, even John Fowles) and plays by heavyweight dramatists like Sidney Kingsley and Lillian Hellman. By their nature, then, these were quite serious movies. This makes it all the more amazing that The Good Fairy, about the only outright comedy he ever directed, is such a funny movie.
Wyler was not associated with any one studio. Instead he worked at various studios and with various producers (he was for many years closely associated with the producer Samuel Goldwyn before he began producing his own pictures in the late 1940s) and thus had an unusual amount of control over his projects. This control meant he was able to use the best technicians, writers, and performers available, and there is no doubt that, as with his best work, the success of The Good Fairy is in large measure the result of this knack for assembling and presiding over the right personnel for the movie. I have already mentioned the contribution of Preston Sturges to the film. But even a script by a genius like Sturges achieves its full expression only with the right actors delivering those brilliantly written lines, and this movie is blessed with an exceptional cast.
Herbert Marshall was for several years in the 1930s a romantic leading man before moving on to supporting character roles. (Wyler himself would later use Marshall in this way in The Letter and The Little Foxes.) In Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) he was a debonair conman romancing both Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis, in Blonde Venus (1932) Marlene Dietrich's husband, and in The Painted Veil (1934) Greta Garbo's husband. In The Good Fairy he gives a wonderful leading performance first as Luisa's dupe and then as the object of her romantic feelings. Under Luisa's influence, his pompous moralizing and emotional remoteness eventually give way to an unexpected capacity for warmth, humor, and affection, rather like the transformation effected by Katharine Hepburn's ditzy heiress on Cary Grant's uptight paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby. Marshall succeeds so well in his role not by trying to be funny but by playing it straight, by finding and bringing out the humor in the character rather than imposing it on the role with overtly comic mannerisms.
The supporting cast, on the other hand, is filled with character actors who rely on a comic persona, the kind of supporting players who contribute immeasurably to the pleasure the best American comedies of the 1930s and 1940s bring to viewers. Eric Blore, so memorable in the Astaire-Rogers movies and in The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels for Sturges, is great fun in the early section of the movie, especially in his tipsy scene. For once he plays not a butler or valet, but a government minister. Alan Hale has only a few scenes but leaves a distinct impression as the eccentric who hires Luisa as a movie theater usherette. Reginald Owen is by turns solicitous and overbearing as Luisa's protector the Waiter, who might just have romantic designs on her himself.
Best of all is the splendid Frank Morgan as the business tycoon chasing Luisa. He is really the prime mover of the plot; most of the things she does are in response to his actions. As for his pursuit of her, he is more a blustering, flustered big pussycat than a sly predator, a character not too dissimilar to the one he played in the greatest role of his career, Matuschek in Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner. In fact, I would say that his performance in The Good Fairy—the role is really quite large; he has nearly as much screen time as Marshall—is in my estimation exceeded only by his performance in that Lubitsch masterpiece.
That brings us back to Margaret Sullavan, the one person above all others who with her charming and radiant performance as Luisa makes The Good Fairy such a special film. Brooke Hayward, Sullavan's daughter, describes her mother in a way that I think applies equally to her performing style in this movie and others: "She didn't seem to talk, like other people, but to communicate information physically, as if she were leaning into whatever she was saying, not only with her voice—which even in a whisper crackled with electricity—but her entire body."
Earlier I wrote of the way Sullavan embodied in her film roles seemingly opposite qualities of character. Her life off-screen was typified by contradictions as well, specifically the conflict between her attitude to her personal life and her attitude to her professional life.
The slender, petite Sullavan (she was 5 feet 2½ inches tall) was born in Virginia in 1909. Originally she wanted to be a dancer before drifting into acting. She was by all accounts an active, athletic, tomboyish woman (she sometimes rode a motorcycle to the studio) described by her friend James Stewart, with whom she made four movies, as having "great humor." Henry Fonda (to whom she was married briefly, for about two months, in the early 1930s) agreed, calling her a "fun-loving" woman that "everybody loved": "There sure wasn't anybody who didn't fall under her spell."
Yet she had a very serious attitude toward her acting. She seemed to be driven more by a sense of professionalism than by personal ambition and found the trappings of celebrity a bothersome intrusion in her life. Her interest in movie acting apparently ended when the scene was finished; she never watched the daily rushes and never saw any of her completed movies. When her children insisted on seeing her last movie, No Sad Songs for Me (1950), she drove them to Radio City Music Hall in New York, where the film was playing, and waited for them outside the theater until the movie was over.
In 1934, during the filming of The Good Fairy, Sullavan eloped with her director, William Wyler. Quickly realizing the marriage had been a mistake, they divorced a little over a year later. In late 1936 she married Leland Hayward, a high-powered New York and Hollywood talent agent who had been her own agent since 1931. Between 1937 and 1941 they had three children, and in 1943 Sullavan retired from the screen to concentrate on her family. Hayward was apparently a compulsive workaholic, and his devotion to work placed a certain amount of strain on the marriage, with Sullavan feeling that he favored his career over her and the children.
After she stopped making movies, Sullavan's life was not always a happy one. The sense of fun that James Stewart and Henry Fonda noted sometimes crossed the line into capricious behavior, as her impetuous early marriages to Fonda and Wyler suggest. In 1945, against the wishes of her husband, she bought a ninety-five acre farm in Connecticut and moved the family there, isolating her husband, who hated the farm, in California for long periods of time. Then in 1947, ignoring the advice of friends who were aware of problems in the marriage, she suddenly decided to do a six-month tour of England in The Voice of the Turtle, a play she'd had great success with on Broadway a couple of years earlier. During this time Hayward, left alone, began an affair with the ex-wife of Howard Hawks, and after Sullavan returned from England they divorced.
Besides the end of her marriage to Leland Hayward, Sullavan experienced several other setbacks in her personal life in the late 1940s and 1950s. She suffered from a hearing disorder called otosclerosis, which, although treated surgically, still led to progressively greater hearing loss. Two of her three children suffered psychological troubles, evidently exacerbated by the divorce, and were at times hospitalized in psychiatric institutions. As teenagers these two became estranged from their mother, who had doted on them when they were younger, and chose to live instead with their father.
Although Sullavan appeared in several successful plays in the 1940s and 1950s, notably John Van Druten's The Voice of the Turtle and Samuel Taylor's Sabrina Fair, she became more and more ambivalent toward her profession and no longer found in it sufficient inspiration for the total commitment she felt was required. This growing disenchantment with performing ("I loathe acting," she is quoted as saying when she began rehearsals in late 1959 for what would have been her last Broadway play)—along with increasing problems with her hearing and what her daughter Brooke Hayward calls "the terrible anxiety that she had failed as a mother"—led to years of worsening insomnia and depression. Margaret Sullavan died of an overdose of barbiturates on New Year's Day 1960. There were indications that the overdose was unintentional, enough so for the coroner to rule her death accidental.
I think Henry Fonda was right when he described Margaret Sullavan as "unique," something that comes through clearly in the characters she played in her brief movie career. Perhaps because Sullavan's later life was so sad, The Good Fairy seems all the more special. In this movie she is exuberant and fresh, genuinely so, almost beyond what is called for in her role. The innocent, optimistic character of Luisa was the ideal showcase for the youthful sense of fun and energy that those who knew Margaret Sullavan described her as having as a young woman, enchanting qualities that are on full display in The Good Fairy and that make the movie so delightful.
All the quoted material and much of the biographical information come from the memoir written by Margaret Sullavan's daughter, Brooke Hayward, Haywire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977).