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Vol. LXIII, No. 19
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
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DVD Review

Margaret Sullavan: Celebrating the Centenary of a Spellbinder

Stuart Mitchner

“Her voice was exquisite and far away, almost like an echo. She was an excellent actress, completely unique. That wonderful voice of hers — strange, fey, mysterious — like a voice singing in the snow.”

Louise Brooks on Margaret Sullavan

I just e-mailed a reprimand to Turner Classic Movies for apparently failing to plan something special for Margaret Sullavan’s 100th birthday, which is Saturday, May 16. Maybe TCM will wake up in time to make a last-minute schedule change in deference to the actress whose presence illuminates Hollywood classics such as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), The Good Fairy (1935), and Three Comrades (1938), for which she won the N.Y. Film Critics award and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She was also the subject of the Ogden Nash poem that begins, “Margaret Sullavan, lovely Meg/Tell me the reason, pray,/That you spell your name, O bewitching Dame, Sullavan with an a,” and ends, “Margaret Sullavan, star alone,/Spell it your own sweet way;/The fairest of sights, in twinkling lights/Is Sullavan with an a.”

As Nash’s poem, Lawrence J. Quirk’s biography Child of Fate (1986), and Henry Fonda suggest, this star always went her “own sweet way.” Quoted in her daughter Brooke Hayward’s best-selling memoir Haywire (1977), Fonda says, “There was nobody like her before or since. Never will be. In every way. In talent, in looks, in character, in temperament. Everything. There sure wasn’t anybody who didn’t fall under her spell.” Fonda knew from experience, since he was the first of her four husbands, and judging from the fact that the marriage lasted only two months, Sullavan’s “way” wasn’t always sweet. She battled studios for the right to chose her roles (and won) and, according to Metro’s Eddie Mannix, she was “the only player who outbullied” M-G-M titan Louis B. Mayer. If you can believe one of the more bizarre Hollywood anecdotes, she supposedly once engaged in a “ferocious” debate with the arch-right-wing director Sam Wood over the hiring of a left-wing actor — a showdown so fierce that it may actually have contributed to Wood’s death from a heart attack later the same day.

Casting Her Spell

Playing the orphaned, starry-eyed, relentlessly adorable naif in The Good Fairy, “lovely Meg” casts a spell on every man who comes her way, including the director William Wyler. After battling Wyler tooth and nail throughout the filming (Sullavan once reportedly compared movie acting to ditch digging), she hopped on the back of his Harley Davidson (you can see the photo in the archive accompanying the Kino DVD) and sped off into the sunset of a second short-lived marriage.

Every time I visit the DVD shelves at the library I look to see if The Good Fairy has been checked out. Every time, incredibly, there it sits, this wild and wonderful mating of Ferenc Molnar’s stage play and Preston Sturges’s screenplay, unviewed, all that luminous fun in limbo, “infinite riches” in a little box. Known best for the knock-about comic extravaganzas he scripted and directed in the 1940s, wherein he gives his characters names such as Kockenlocker (Luisa’s last name is Ginglebuscher), Sturges brilliantly blends slapstick and character. The headlong hilarity is enriched by the human comedy of Reginald Owen as the blustering waiter who becomes Luisa’s vigilant chaperone, determined to protect her from the frantic advances of the dithery, stammering, hopelessly infatuated Frank Morgan, best known as the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz. Then you have the sublimely funny body English of Eric Blore’s Dr. Metz; the bluster of Alan Hale as the owner of the movie palace where Luisa is an elaborately uniformed usherette waving the neon arrow of her electric wand; and Herbert Marshall as Max Sporum, the clientless, clueless lawyer Luisa makes it her mission to save. Marshall brings some left-over Lubitsch into his performance as a priggish fellow with a laughable goatee (“Your beard looks like my name,” says the lovely, giggling Ginglebuscher). Can this be the suave jewel thief who ordered the moon in his wine in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise? As for “Sullavan-with-an-a,” she’s uncanny, beyond praise. Without props or tricks, without overplaying it, never merely coy, cute, or self-conscious, she brings a pure spirit to life, makes innocence sexy, and believably embodies everything a good fairy should be.

Borzage and Sullavan

Sullavan may have married William Wyler, but the most important director in her film life was Frank Borzage. Her marriage to Wyler lasted just over a year. Her working relationship with Borzage spanned the six years that were the heart of her film career, 1934-1940. Of her 16 films, four were directed by Borzage, most significantly the three works comprising what has come to be known as the Weimar Trilogy: Little Man, What Now? (1934), Three Comrades (1938), and The Mortal Storm (1940). Arguably the most accomplished performance of her career was as Pat in Three Comrades, which should have earned her an Oscar, except that, all too predictably, Bette Davis’s flamboyant turn in Jezebel prevailed over Sullavan’s more nuanced, magnetic, and moving portrayal of a beautiful, terminally ill woman whose strength and spirit inspire the three friends referred to in the title (Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young).

Fitzgerald and Sullavan

Three Comrades was Scott Fitzgerald’s only screen credit, and a look at the version of his scenario that was first published in 1978 (Southern Illinois University Press) reveals the few glimmers of Gatsby-style magic that survived the slings and arrows of production. The stunning dress Sullavan wears on her first date with the Robert Taylor character seems to have been tailored to Fitzgerald’s metaphor (“a silver torch”), which is how the vision of Daisy Buchanan must have appeared to Gatsby, except that Sullavan’s Pat is a truly heroic character. She also does full justice to another Fitzgerald line that surfaces in the finished version. When she smells Taylor’s breath (he’s been on a bender), she says, “Rum — cognac — whiskey — the League of Nations, darling!” Another line from Fitzgerald’s screenplay that doesn’t do much on the page comes movingly to life in the film when Sullavan says to her lover in the remarkable voice that Louise Brooks imagined “singing in the snow”: “It’s all right — it’s hard to die — but I’m quite full of love — like a bee is full of honey when it comes back to the hive in the evening.”

In fact, it was Sullavan’s voice that first caught the attention of theatrical producer Lee Schubert. According to Quirk’s Child of Fate, she was suffering from a bad case of laryngitis at the time, which made her voice “huskier than usual,” and in later years she “would joke that she cultivated that laryngitis into a permanent hoarseness by standing in every available draft.”

How Not to Act

When Sullavan once said, again as quoted in Quirk’s biography, “You’ll never learn to act in Hollywood,” she was actually paying a tribute of sorts to Frank Borzage, who “abhorred the term ‘act,’” because “a true movie actor ‘lives’ the role.” Speaking of Sullavan’s behavior in a particular scene in Little Man, What Now?, Borzage said, “Even when shooting it, there was not the slightest hint that the scene had been carefully planned. She did it so naturally she might have been miles away from a film unit.”

Perhaps the best person to sum up the uniqueness of Margaret Sullavan is Jimmy Stewart, her co-star in Borzage’s The Mortal Storm and her best-known film, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. Various biographies of Stewart acknowledge that Sullavan was the love of his life, a fact confirmed by his wife, Gloria, who has admitted knowing that he was “always madly in love” with her “and she with him.” Said Stewart, “She had you just a little bit off guard … she could do moments that would hit you, maybe a look or a line or two, but they would hit like flashes or earthquakes.”

The Good Fairy and The Shop Around the Corner are available at the Princeton Public Library. Hopefully, the other Sullavan-Borzage films at Metro, The Shining Hour, Three Comrades, and The Mortal Storm, will soon be out on DVD.

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