Norfolk’s Margaret Sullavan Reached Stardom In Hollywood’s Golden Age

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Stork Club, Margaret Sullavan
Stork Club with husband Leland Hayward (Orson Welles far left), November 1944.

"You'll never learn to act in Hollywood. Not in a thousand years." —Margaret Sullavan


Margaret Sullavan only made 16 motion pictures, in a brief career defined by a seeming indifference to movies. Because of her ongoing success on Broadway, she could afford to be choosey and refused to sign long-term contracts. The feared MGM Mogul, Louis B. Mayer, was frightened of her, it was said, but the public loved her. There's no better time than now to find out why. After years of unavailability, Warner Archive, Universal Archive and Turner Classic Movies have reissued many of Margaret Sullavan's best films (see below).

"She startled slicked up Hollywood in 1933 by wearing old slacks, sneakers and sweaters and driving a rented old Ford," LIFE magazine reported in 1942. "She defied studio officials by refusing to have a crooked tooth straightened. She horrified photographers by coming barefoot for fashion portraits, explaining that her feet would not show. She eloped with director William Wyler after quarreling with him steadily during 10 weeks of work. Just as she was about to come a top-rank screen star, she left Hollywood for Broadway 'to learn how to act.'"  

"What a creature she was," comedian Bill Murray enthused during a special tribute on TCM. The Moon's Our Home, a 1936 screwball comedy Sullavan made with Fonda after their divorce, is one of his favorite films. In this crazy movie, she dives in headfirst with a performance as over-the-top as many of her dramatic performances were understated. "When she told a man she loved him, on stage or screen, she gave it all an almost frightening conviction," ex-husband Fonda once wrote. And he would know.

The actress didn't do much broad slapstick; her forte was something deeper. Many of her films were set in Germany and depict a changing world battling fascism and the Nazi threat. Her characters didn't always come out on top. “Margaret Sullavan was a star whose deathbed scenes were one of the great joys of the Golden Age of Movies," author Gore Vidal once offered. "Sullavan never simply kicked the bucket. She made speeches, as she lay dying, and she was so incredibly noble that she made you feel like an absolute twerp for continuing to live out your petty life after she’d ridden on ahead.” 

There was an inside joke that Maggie had extended death scenes written into her contract. From her debut, Only Yesterday, in 1933, to her final film, No Sad Songs For Me, she made expiring an art form. On screen, she never died the same way twice. Suffering from deafness in real life, beset with depression, she was only 51 when death came for real in 1960, from an overdose of pills. 

She leaves behind a small but fascinating body of work and the echoes of something else, something timeless. “That wonderful voice of hers,” actress Louise Brooks remembered. “Strange, fey, mysterious ... like a voice singing in the snow.”

Maggie Sullavan is buried in a modest grave at St. Mary's Whitechapel Trinity Episcopal Churchyard in Lancaster, Va., on the Northern Neck.

Margaret "Peggy" Sullavan, Chatham
Young Promise Sullavan was voted "Most Talented" at Chatham, not only excelling
in dramatic productions but editing the school yearbook, acting as a class treasurer,
playing basketball and joining the Drama, Latin, Cotillion and English clubs. 
courtesy of Chatham Hall Archive.


Maggie's Gems

After years languishing in the vaults, many of Margaret Sullavan's best films are now available again on DVD and streaming online video. But some are still awaiting reissue. Here are her best:


Only Yesterday (1933)

Sullavan's debut, which she hated, is unavailable on DVD and hard to find today outside of Youtube. But it's one of her finest performances, and the movie itself still shocks. Track it down.


Little Man, What Now? (1934)

Sullavan shines with co-star Douglass Montgomery as a young married couple torn apart by circumstance and escalating tensions in post-war Germany. Her first of four films with stylish director Frank Borzage. (Universal Vault).


The Good Fairy (1935)

This is Sullavan at her cutest, playing an innocent orphan girl whose good deeds get wacky. The script is by the legendary satirist Preston Sturges, and the director is William Wyler, who Sullavan battled on the set... and then married. (Kino/Universal)


So Red the Rose (1935)

Sullavan is a fiery Southern belle in this Civil War-era drama co-starring Randolph Scott. It's an interesting companion piece to the later Gone with the Wind. This is another of the actress’s films currently unavailable on DVD.


Next Time We Love (1936)

Her first onscreen pairing with James Stewart has a weak script, but the romantic comedy about an estranged couple (she's an actress, he's a newspaper reporter) still sizzles because of the stars' undeniable chemistry. (Universal Vault)


The Moon's Our Home (1936)

Containing one of the screen's best pillow fights, and featuring ex-husband Henry Fonda in a combative scenario that must've felt natural, this screwball comedy contains Sullavan's wildest, rawest acting work. (Universal Vault)


Three Comrades (1938)

With a script co-written by F. Scott Fitzgerald—yes, him—this was one of the first Hollywood films to deal squarely with the rising threat of Nazi-ism. Sullavan copped her one and only Academy Award nomination here, and her final scene is one for the ages. (Warner Archive)


The Shopworn Angel (1938)

Sullavan's second film with James Stewart is a doomed love story set during World War I—funny, endearing and, finally, heartbreaking. Juggling Stewart and Walter Pidgeon in an improbable love triangle, this is one of the actress's most complex roles, and she nails it. (Warner Archive)


The Shining Hour (1938)

Actress Joan Crawford sought out Sullavan as her co-star for this crackling adaptation of a popular play about the aftermath of an affair. Wonderfully shot, it's inspired soap opera, and the end scene involving a fire rescue is still harrowing. (Warner Archive)


The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

"This is a love story about a couple too much in love with love to fall tidily into each other's arms," critic David Thomson wrote of this magical film. Set in Budapest, Sullavan and James Stewart are perfect as our mismatched pair, and the supporting cast (and their own bittersweet stories) supply the fairy dust, Essential. (Warner Archive/Amazon Video)


The Mortal Storm (1940) 

In their final film together, for MGM, Sullavan and Stewart play a German couple battling against the after-effects of Hitler's rise to power. This powerful movie so incensed German officials that they banned all MGM productions from the country, and this was before the U.S. had even entered World War II. (Warner Archive)


Back Street (1941) 

Sullavan fans (and biographer Lawrence Quirk say that this is her finest movie performance, in an otherwise ordinary adaptation of a previously-filmed love story that co-stars the oily Charles Boyer. (Universal Archive/Turner Classic Movies)


No Sad Songs for Me (1950) 

In light of her reputation for elaborate death scenes, Sullavan's final film can be read as something of a black comedy. After a seven-year absence from the screen, she portrays a woman dying of cancer who is desperate to find her husband a worthy second wife. A sentimental curio. (SPE Video)

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