Monday, February 13, 2017

Great Screen Matches: Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart

Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

Of the great Hollywood women of the 1930s, Margaret Sullavan is the forgotten one, though she was a staple in M-G-M pictures of the era. She had a firefly quality – a flickering glimmer – and the salient characteristic of her performances was the courage that kept her going in the face of her own fragility. She was a feast for the camera – her slender frame was ideal for both clinging, satiny gowns and fussy, elaborate get-ups, which she wore with a kind of gallantry. (“Gallantry” was the film critic Pauline Kael’s word for her, and it’s perfect: it expresses the exquisite tension between her tremulous lightness and her resoluteness in launching herself into the scary world.) Her voice was high and cottony, with an accent somewhere between New York and mid-Atlantic – the made-up accent, still taught in some acting schools, that’s supposed to stand for ambiguous cosmopolitanism in American performers – and the words always seemed to be pushing through some kind of obstacle, like honey dripping through the comb. 

Sullavan was brilliant opposite Herbert Marshall in The Good Fairy (directed by William Wyler, whom she later married) and opposite Henry Fonda (to whom she had been married) in The Moon’s Our Home, a marvelous romantic comedy partly written by the on-again, off-again couple Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell that cast Sullavan as a movie star and Fonda as a famous writer who meet and fall in love without knowing each other’s identity. It’s an inspired idea for a screwball comedy, since the premise of those pictures, borrowed from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, is the tension between the sexual and emotional attraction of the hero and heroine and their adversarial relationship. In The Moon’s Our Home, Fonda and Sullavan are biased against each other on principle – the pompous, posturing celebrity writer, the frivolous, narcissistic Hollywood baby – and can only see what’s beneath the surface if they can’t see the surface. But terrific as Fonda and Marshall were at partnering Sullavan, she was best with Jimmy Stewart, with whom she made four films between 1936 and 1940. 

When they met on screen for the first time, in Next Time We Love (1936), she was already a star and he wasn’t yet; she’s the only one who gets billing above the title. The movie, written by Melville Baker (from an Ursula Parrott story) and directed by Edward H. Griffith, is a romantic drama, bracingly modern, about a married couple, Chris and Cicely Tyler, who love each other but choose to live mostly separate lives because their careers – she’s an actress, he’s a foreign correspondent – send them in different directions. The story, which begins in 1927, when she’s a college senior (she drops out to wed him) and he’s a fledgling reporter, and transpires over roughly a decade, requires them both to mature. Sullavan manages the transition more effectively than Stewart. Big-eared – the curse of Hollywood leading men of the period (think of Clark Gable and the young Cary Grant) – with such freshly minted juvenile looks that his bedroom eyes pop, his lanky body towering over her slight one, he exudes so much feeling that it defines him; he barely seems to have discovered a style yet. But his goofiness is endearing, and he poeticizes his Midwestern drawl: his voice curls at the edges when he’s touched with amazement. When Chris returns from his second posting, in Russia, he’s wearing a more sedate suit, but Stewart still seems too young to carry off the air of worldly seriousness, and what’s meant to express remoteness comes across as stiffness. But when Cicely becomes a Broadway star and gets to dress better, in stunning Vera West outfits, Sullavan’s aura of sophistication is absolutely authentic. She holds herself at a different angle, leaning affectingly against the mantle, reading a letter from her husband with her gloves on; she’s a creature of the theatre, so easy and fluid with this way of being in the world that it doesn’t feel like affectation. 

Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart in Next Time We Love (1936)

What’s potent in the movie is their chemistry. They share a delicately stylized conversational approach to the dialogue. You register that you’re watching movie stars, but their rhythms are irregular; they feint and dodge, so though they’re not exactly replicating the patterns of real-life exchanges, they don’t sound rehearsed, either. It’s as though they’ve invented a new kind of banter that’s a sort of metaphor for the way people – and especially lovers – talk to each other. And though her technique with the lines is more developed at this point than his, they’re connecting on a level so far below the actual dialogue (though the lines are sometimes eloquent) that we’re listening to something else, like a high-frequency signal that conveys the inner core of their feelings for each other. When you think back on their performances, the individual moments you recall are likely to be Sullavan’s and not Stewart’s, like the way she tells his best friend Tommy (Ray Milland), after Chris leaves for Europe for the first time, that she has to get used to going home to the apartment without him there. Her voice sounds suddenly huskier, floating, as if her loneliness had punctured holes in it and they’d been filled up with mist. But the movie lives on the way they share the frame in their scenes together, moving together and apart instinctively – as in the scene where Cicely tells Chris, with reluctance, that she’s not going with him on his first assignment to Rome, and her rebellion against his expectations bruises him enough that he shows his most unattractive side, pride that edges into insult. Next Time We Love has a melodramatic twist in the last reel that neither of the actors can negotiate successfully, so the ending is unsatisfying. But it’s a memorable collaboration.

By The Shopworn Angel (1938) Stewart has earned above-the-title billing. The movie, directed by H.C. Potter, is a remake of material (a story by Dana Burnet) that had been done as a silent and again as an early talkie, with Nancy Carroll in the role of the wised-up stage performer who ends up marrying a G.I. before he goes to France to fight in the First World War. The story is pretty wet, but the screenwriter, Waldo Salt, does some interesting things with it, and the two stars are transcendent. The premise pits the cynicism and self-absorption and complacency of Sullavan’s character, Daisy Heath, against the innocence and sincerity and seriousness of Stewart’s, Bill Pettigrew, but the tension turns out to be between Daisy’s own finer – deeper – impulses and the selfish, uncommitted lifestyle she leads. She may be shopworn, but he sees her as an angel, and slowly she turns into the woman he perceives when he looks at her. He’s a Texas cowboy on leave in New York until his ship leaves for France; they meet cute when her limo, en route to the club where she’s featured in a revue, knocks him down at a street corner. He’s not hurt but a beat cop insists that her car take him back to his barracks. When his buddies see him step out, he can’t resist pretending that she’s his girl friend. They press him to introduce them at the stage door after the show, and she’s nice enough to go along with the ruse. And then, to her own surprise, she’s moved by him, by his sweetness and squareness. He falls in love with her without her realizing it – though Sam Bailey (Walter Pidgeon), the man who’s been squiring her and is as worldly as she is, does, because he’s in love with her too. Ironically it’s Bill’s authenticity, his immediate access to the realm of emotion that she’s kept firmly at bay, that liberates her from her free-floating, self-contained state. That is, Bill stirs up feelings in her that make her susceptible to Sam’s romantic efforts. What’s a little loony in the material is her decision to marry Bill when he asks her because she’s convinced that what she and Sam feel for each other – the new-found belief of two jaded individuals in the power of love – is something they “stole” from this innocent kid who’s about to throw himself into battle and may never come back. 

Yet you buy it, because the work of the two stars knocks you sideways. Sullavan is very different here than in Next Time We Love: she has a toughness and a striding, almost sashaying physicality. She gives Daisy a grasping, impatient quality; you can see the ambition that must have gotten her where she is. It isn’t until she opts to go along with Bill’s masquerade about being her sweetheart that we see her act for someone else’s benefit; it’s an uncharacteristic moment of sensitivity and kindness. The way Sullavan plays this character, she’s brassy and hard-edged because she doesn’t want to acknowledge the gentleness and refinement inside her; once she links up with Bill and he brings out that side of her – a side she didn’t know she had – Sullavan alternates between these two personae, as if Daisy’s no longer sure who she really is. She’s fantastic at getting Daisy’s bewilderment, her emotional chaos when she finds herself in circumstances so weirdly beyond her experience. And Stewart has grown immeasurably as an actor by this time. Though he’s still fresh-faced in his doughboy uniform, he has a witty ironic look on his face when he trades quips with his buddies (Sam Levene, Nat Pendleton and Alan Curtis), and for perhaps the first time he uses that trademark drawl expressively, for romantic comedy. Stewart’s understated way of getting at emotion was his ace in the hole from the outset of his movie career, but he’s figured out how to use it to burrow into his character.

Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart during the filming of The Shopworn Angel (1938). (Photo:

They’re both extraordinary in the scene where he shows her around the army camp. At Sam’s suggestion, the show Daisy’s starring in performs at a special benefit for the soldiers, where she leads the chorus girls – and eventually the boys in the crowd – in “Pack Up Your Troubles.” (Sullavan isn’t a singer, but she certainly knows how to put over a number: she’s raucous and open-hearted, performing with an empathy for her audience, all these soldiers about to be poured into the war, that endears her to them.) Afterwards Bill gives her a tour of the camp that takes them across a field where dummies are strung up for bayonet practice, and when he explains to her what she’s looking at, the reality of his impending fate smashes her in the face. He’s philosophical about it; after all, he’s considered the possibility of death and she hasn’t. He tells her he figures that dying is like being in love – that you can’t quite imagine it until it comes on top of you. (This is an example of Salt’s skill, and delicacy, as a screenwriter.) But it’s in the late scenes, the ones that would strain credulity if you just read the plot, that the emotions of the two actors are most potent, especially Sullavan’s. She and Stewart take the movie to a level you wouldn’t have imagined they could; they make you believe in the narrative, in the behavior of the characters. It’s sheer pop magic – the magic that only wonderful actors who are also movie stars can work. Think of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were.

Stewart and Sullavan’s finest work together came two years later, in The Shop Around the Corner, which Ernst Lubitsch directed (magnificently) from a screenplay by Samson Raphaelson that I think is the finest piece of romantic-comedy writing ever done in Hollywood. (It’s an adaptation of a Hungarian play by Miklós Laszló called Parfumerie that also furnished the source material for the enchanting Bock-Harnick stage musical She Loves Me.) Like The Moon’s Our Home, The Shop Around the Corner is built on an idea that gets at the heart of romantic comedy. In a small department store in Depression-era Budapest, the chief clerk, Alfred Kralik (Stewart), bickers continually with the last-hired employee, Klara Novak (Sullavan), neither realizing that they’re correspondents who have already fallen in love with each other through their impassioned discussions of literature and music and art in letters they address to “Dear Friend.” 

This is a different role for Stewart from his earlier movies with Sullavan: he gets to be more worldly, or at least more of a seasoned professional, at the outset – he’s not an innocent. But he holds onto his emotional eagerness; you can hear it in his voice when he reads his latest letter from “Dear Friend” aloud to his friend and co-worker Pirovitch (Felix Bressart). It’s his most complex role to date, possibly the most complex hero in any romantic comedy from this era. Kralik is confident of his abilities as the shop employee with the greatest longevity, clearly on the verge of becoming its official manager, and his pride in his own competence and his certainty that he’s respected by his boss, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), give him the license, he believes, to express his opinion, even when they don’t agree. Anyway, that’s who he is; he’s no more capable of compromise than Bill Pettigrew in The Shopworn Angel. And Matuschek has made it clear that he loves him like a son, inviting him home for dinner and encouraging him to believe that a promotion is imminent. Yet it hurts the old man when Alfred argues with him; he can’t help feeling that his protégé is undermining him. Then, when he receives an anonymous letter to the effect that his wife is sleeping with one of his clerks, he mistakenly assumes her lover is Alfred and it poisons their relationship. Stewart and Morgan are remarkable in their scenes together, especially the one where Alfred is called into the boss’s office and, assuming he’s about to be promoted at last, is crestfallen to discover that he’s being fired instead. When he walks out onto the floor, his co-workers are primed to congratulate him; instead he reads aloud the letter of recommendation Matuschek has furnished him with, the generosity of which underscores, in Stewart’s reading, the sadness he feels – that both men feel – at the disintegration of their friendship. Then, silently, he lays on the counter the tools of his job: his ledger, his pencils, his key. That night Kralik has his first date with “Dear Friend” at a nearby café; he isn’t feeling up to the long-anticipated meeting, now that he’s a man without prospects, but he persuades Pirovitch to peek in the window for him and describe the lady with the rose and the copy of Anna Karenina waiting at a table for two. When Pirovitch informs him that “Dear Friend” is Klara, Stewart’s Alfred chuckles bitterly, as if fate were dealing him one more blow – as if the universe were laughing at him. 

Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The conventions of romantic comedy demand that that the characters undergo a series of tests to earn each other’s love; they amount to the compromising of their positions, which have created the distance between them, the chasm that must be bridged. Kralik’s first test is his response to the news that this woman he thought he despised is actually the correspondent with whom he has fallen in love, and it changes his attitude toward her – in the same way that, in Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick’s hearing that Beatrice loves him (a fiction dreamed up by their friends that contains the truth neither has been able to recognize) alters his view of her. And so for the rest of the movie the arc of the main plot is Alfred’s working to melt the tension between him and Klara – which is, of course, masked sexual tension – and finally winning her over. What both actors are playing with in Raphaelson’s ingenious screenplay is another tension, that between the side each of the protagonists sees of the other and the side that’s hidden because a bad first impression has made it impossible for either to perceive anything else. (The subplot mirrors the main plot: in his dealings with his chief clerk, Matuschek’s misapprehension that Kralik has betrayed him makes it impossible for him to see the truth about him.) As Klara, Sullavan suggests a desperation that verges on the neurotic: for a job in these dark, frightening days of economic instability, and for a romantic life she needs so badly that she’s taken out an ad in the paper for a young man to exchange letters with her. When she’s supercilious with Alfred – or petty or sarcastic or dismissive or downright mean (in one scene she really injures him, and he hasn’t deserved it) – it’s that desperation and her judging him to be a threat that cause her to behave in that way. The brilliance of Sullavan’s performance is in its tonal balance: remarkable technician that she is, she plays her scenes with Stewart for their romantic-comic value while allowing them to reveal the shakiness, the lack of confidence, beneath Klara’s poise and elegance and undeniable gifts as a saleswoman.

Sullavan and Stewart made one more movie together:The Mortal Storm, which came out later the same year as The Shop Around the Corner. Set in Germany, it was one of the first Hollywood pictures to deal with the rise of Nazism, and Goebbels was so incensed by it that he forbade any M-G-M pictures to be shown in the Third Reich. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good. In fact, it’s an embarrassment. Frank Morgan plays the “non-Aryan” science professor who’s thrown into a labor camp – not because he’s a Jew (no one in the movie ever alludes to Jews!) but because he insists on upholding scientific evidence that Aryan blood is no purer than anyone else’s. Meanwhile his stepsons have become Nazis and turned against their childhood friend (Stewart), a plain-spoken farmer’s son who refuses to ally himself with Hitler. Sullavan is Morgan’s daughter, who allows one of the stepsons (Robert Young) to bully her into becoming engaged to him until she sees what a thug he’s turned into and shifts to Stewart. Sullavan gives perhaps her worst performance (she does a lot of glaring), though Stewart comes through somehow, especially in the scene where he confesses his love for her. The M-G-M backlot has never looked less convincingly like a European town, despite the efforts of the talented director, Frank Borzage, and the talented cinematographer, William Daniels. It wasn’t an auspicious finale for an acting partnership that was as fine as any in American movie history.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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