Bright Lights Film Journal

Margaret Sullavan and the Art of Dying

Note: One of our favorite actresses, Margaret Sullavan, was born on May 16, 1909, which means she’d be 108 if she’d lived. Not that she’d necessarily have wanted to, as Dan Callahan’s incisive profile shows. Dan’s tribute to this high-strung, troubled, brilliant star, who died on January 1, 1960, from a drug overdose, first appeared in Bright Lights in 2005.

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“Now … here comes the paradox …”

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The voice of Margaret Sullavan haunts the movies still. When you first hear it, it sounds limited and ephemeral, like Billie Holiday’s singing voice. But Lady Day could do just about anything with her voice, and Sullavan’s vocal range is limitless too, not hamstrung by particularity, but freed to roam wherever she chooses. She could bring it down low for a big booming growl; she could lift it up high, higher, oh higher!; or she could keep it in a middle register and break it into a thousand tingling laryngitis pieces. Sullavan made just 16 movies, and only one of them, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), is an accepted classic. Most of her best films have never been on video and are rarely shown on television. Many people don’t know her at all. Some might think of Maureen O’Sullivan, Tarzan’s Jane and Mia Farrow’s mother. Others know Shop and nothing else. Sullavan has never become a cult, though she certainly has all the elements necessary.

It was joked that she had a clause in her contract that required a lengthy death scene in each of her films; she seemed to be always dying. Gore Vidal wrote, “Margaret Sullavan was a star whose deathbed scenes were one of the great joys of the Golden Age of Movies. 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.” Sullavan dies in her first film, Only Yesterday (1933), and she dies in her last film, No Sad Songs for Me (1950). In between, she threatens to die in childbirth (Little Man, What Now?, 1934), nobly dies from tuberculosis (Three Comrades, 1938), nobly tries to die in a fire (The Shining Hour, 1938), is shot by Nazis (The Mortal Storm, 1940), expires in front of Charles Boyer’s photograph (Back Street, 1941), and contracts a fatal case of malaria (Cry Havoc, 1943). In real life, Sullavan took pills and killed herself in 1960, at the age of 51. But she’s not a gloomy actress; her characters are not portentous. In fact, her foregone tragic fate seemed to exhilarate her. She taught an audience the many ways of dying, yes, but she also showed them how to live: fearlessly, poetically.

Sullavan never makes conventional choices as an actress and never hits an emotion hard; she always comes at things obliquely. Where others would be pathetic, she would be rueful. Where others would be sorrowful, she would light up with perverse gaiety. As Klara Novak, the pretentious shopgirl in The Shop Around the Corner, she finds just the right balance of loftiness and vulnerability. No other actress could have played Klara like she does. Katharine Hepburn would have been too hard, Jean Arthur too soft. Sullavan is just right because she’s never quite nailed down to anything. She was versatile: she would have killed as Ibsen’s Nora, but her Hedda Gabler would have been one for the books as well.

An early portrait

A Virginia belle, Sullavan began her acting career on stage with a repertory company in Massachusetts called the University Players. It’s there that she met her first husband, Henry Fonda. “She was not an easy woman to categorize or explain,” Fonda later said. He remembered that she was “unforgettable” as Tessa in The Constant Nymph, a classic waif part. She did forty or fifty shows with them, playing all kinds of parts. When she interviewed with Lee Schubert for a Broadway role, she had a terrible cold. Consequently, her voice was huskier than usual. Schubert loved this voice, and Sullavan strove to keep it by “standing in every available draft.” Hollywood wanted her almost immediately, and she eventually went out to Universal to do John Stahl’s Only Yesterday.

Only Yesterday reflects forward on Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) just as Stahl’s complex version of Imitation of Life (1934) sheds light on Douglas Sirk’s remake. The stories of Letter and Only Yesterday are much the same: a young woman meets and falls in love with a man, has his child, and then must deal with the fact that he doesn’t recognize her when they meet again. When Stefan (Louis Jordan) doesn’t recognize Lisa (Joan Fontaine) in Letter, she takes this blow with sweet tact and selfless, even masochistic nobility. When Sullavan’s Mary sees her forgetful lover James (John Boles) on New Year’s Eve in Only Yesterday, she looks at him with anger. This shades into a lighter quality, the ruefulness that Sullavan does so well. There are at least six or seven shifts of deep emotion as she looks at Boles in these silent shots, revealing Sullavan as a new virtuoso of the medium.

Throughout the film, Stahl gives Sullavan long takes and static close-ups to delineate the stages of her character’s hopeful youth and gradual disillusionment. When she dies, Sullavan highlights the character’s bitterness as she pens a sour grapes letter to the man she once loved. It’s probably her most realistic death scene, immature and ignoble, the antithesis of her later expirations. Only Yesterday made her a star, but she didn’t tie herself down to Hollywood; she never signed long-term contracts.

Little Man, What Now?

For her next film, Little Man, What Now?, Sullavan found her most sympathetic director, Frank Borzage. Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery play a young couple trying to survive in the grinding poverty of post-WWI Germany. In the first scene, Sullavan decides against an abortion: she chooses life, even when she’s been reduced by straitened circumstances. During an idyll in a forest, Sullavan hikes her skirt up high and gets frisky. Flaunting her beautiful legs, she jumps out of a tree and practically humps Montgomery after she lands on top of him. Borzage’s camera idealizes her perfect wife; it’s definitely Sullavan’s sexiest performance (indeed, she’s seen as a sex object by most of the older men in the movie).

Little Man sets a standard for her romances. Small and frail, Sullavan is usually paired with a taller man that is even more vulnerable than she is, so that she has to be maternal and protective of him, even when she is ill; this is always a striking reversal in her films. “Take care of me, please,” Montgomery pleads, as he buries himself in her chest. (Love between men and women and mothers and sons always blurs in Sullavan’s movies). In Little Man, What Now?, the world outside may be grim, but inside their Borzagian Seventh Heaven, Sullavan and Montgomery find peace in each other. She dons a beautiful light dress for him (the first of many in Sullavan’s films) to contribute an image of hope and perishable beauty. Little Man has something to say about a country in economic crisis, but it has even more to say about the nature of love, and how you show love for someone by your ability to compromise and forgive. Ravaged by hunger, Sullavan’s Lammchen pitifully confesses that she ate their whole dinner. Montgomery isn’t mad: he loves her even more. The film proves that poverty can build love as well as destroy it.

Sullavan had married and divorced Henry Fonda in a flash, and she was involved with demonic Broadway producer Jed Harris for a time. Seeking to flee Harris, she made an impetuous, also short-lived marriage with William Wyler, the director of her next film, The Good Fairy (1935, right). It has a nifty Preston Sturges script sprinkled with dirty double entendres, but it’s saddled with dull men (Herbert Marshall, Eric Blore, a nightmarishly dithering Frank Morgan) and Wyler’s heavy hand with comedy. Sullavan plays an innocent constantly ducking male advances, and she goes all-out with empathetic girlishness, but the part is too cute. For the only time in her career, she overdoes her distinctive winsomeness.

So Red the Rose, with Randolph Scott

King Vidor’s So Red the Rose (1935) is an antebellum romance with Sullavan as a childish Southern-belle who matures into a responsible woman. Her Valette works at being a coquette (she says Robert Cummings reminds her of Byron!), and she strikes sexy sparks against taciturn, honorable Duncan (Randolph Scott). Sullavan has a magic dress here, too: she cherishes the white gown she wears in the opening scene, and saves it from being stolen by a Yankee (then saves the Yankee’s life). The film is too short, and ends abruptly, but Vidor makes it a rich, troubling movie, especially in the ways it deals with the elation and confusion of its freed black characters, something that does not come up in Gone with the Wind (1939). “I was just thrilled with her,” said Vidor of Sullavan. “I think I would have done any picture if she was going to be in it. I wouldn’t even have read the script.”

Sullavan’s next movie, Edward H. Griffiths’ Next Time We Love (1936), paired her with her best partner, James Stewart (the Gatsby to her Daisy), and inaugurated her mature style. If Little Man, What Now? was the story of a successful relationship that triumphs over adversity, Next Time We Love is a modest portrait of a relationship that just doesn’t work out. Stewart and Sullavan are a perfect couple here, but she isn’t content to be a perfect wife; she wants a career as an actress. When Stewart tells her that she is being too emotional with her first role, a walk-on as a maid, she’s quite stung and very emotional indeed when she insists, “I’m not emotional.” (It’s a harbinger of Klara’s obliviousness in Shop Around the Corner). Stewart, in irritation, mistakenly mentions how he “let her” go on the stage, and Sullavan is outraged. “Let me?” she cries, astounded. They never recover (until a hasty, unconvincing happy ending).

William A. Seiter’s The Moon’s Our Home (1936) is Sullavan’s only out-and-out screwball comedy, an archetypal example of the genre: loose, nasty-tempered, and blessed with additional dialogue by Dorothy Parker. “Give me a primitive woman with a small high chest,” says explorer Anthony Amberton (her ex Henry Fonda, in their only movie together). He gets that in Sullavan’s temperamental movie queen Cherry Chester, who pitches a lot of ferocious-voiced tantrums. When Garbo is mentioned, Cherry howls, “It took her five years to smile! I sang in my third picture!” (Sullavan uses her voice here for vulgar comic effects). In one scene, she rushes over to open a window and let some cold winter air in, then runs to her bed and huddles under the covers: it’s a key example of Sullavan’s reckless devil-may-care quality. The Moon’s Our Home is a likably on-the-fly sort of movie, ending when Anthony puts Cherry in a straightjacket. “I’m tired of having my own arms around me,” she says finally, an egomaniac’s plea for love.

With Frank Borzage on the set of Three Comrades

Borzage’s Three Comrades (below) is Sullavan’s most magical movie. Based on an Erich Maria Remarque novel, with a screenplay co-written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s a film about the Lost Generation made up of special, rarified moments. As Patricia, a beautiful fallen aristocrat dying of tuberculosis who finds love and comradeship with three close friends (Robert Taylor, Robert Young and Franchot Tone), Sullavan seizes on the poeticisms in Fitzgerald’s dialogue and fashions a character who transcends time, space and the film itself. In Three Comrades ‘ Germany, the Communist agitations in the streets of Little Man, What Now? have given way to marauding gangs brutalizing stores and pedestrians (they aren’t called Nazis by name). But Borzage focuses on the positive enclosure of the three men’s friendship, with Sullavan as their haunting mascot.

She lovingly calls Taylor a baby (he’s another son/husband for her) and takes him out on the town in her “last extravagance,” a gleaming silver dress. When Sullavan’s Patricia talks of how she had to “take to bed,” there’s a taboo-smashing sexiness in the way she says it, as if illness and lovemaking were similar extremes. Succumbing to tuberculosis, she stares up from her sickbed mutely, a gorgeous, sexy mess. In her epic death scene, Sullavan breaks your heart into tiny and tinier pieces. “It’s ticking so loud!” she says, of Taylor’s watch. When he rips it off, Franz Waxman’s non-stop score takes a breath for a moment. “Now time is standing still,” she says (and it is). Patricia knows that she’s going to become a burden, so she decides to get up out of bed, a move that will kill her. She rises slowly, carefully, and as she stands, Borzage’s camera pulls up into an overhead shot as she walks to an open window. She waves to Taylor, reaches out one arm, then another, and collapses. It’s the most lyrical death scene in movie history, rivaled only by Bette Davis’ death in Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory (1939).

Turning on a dime, in H. C. Potter’s The Shopworn Angel (1938) Sullavan is a hard-bitten, alcoholic, cranky theater star who melts for doughboy James Stewart. It’s a Barbara Stanwyck-type part, a Brooklyn broad who uses cynicism as armor to protect her basic good nature. Sullavan’s eyes are hard here, staring and impatient, ladling out barely contained anger at those around her. She makes the serviceable dialogue sound profound, especially when she says to her boyfriend (Walter Pidgeon), “Sam, when I die heaven’s going to be an awful anti-climax.” All her line readings in the film are brisk and ambiguous; you can’t tell if she means anything sincerely. She says she feels like a mother to Stewart; this is the giveaway, for maternal feelings are always romantic feelings to Sullavan.

The Shining Hour, with Joan Crawford

Sullavan then stole a stagy Joan Crawford vehicle, Borzage’s The Shining Hour (which might be called Joan Gets Snubbed at Pickfair). Sullavan infuses her dim loving wife part with delicate emotions. She generally avoids prosaic feelings and heads straight for the big things, handling them with airy tact and wistful pre-occupation. But she can fight too: watch the way she handles meddling in-law Fay Bainter, who is trying to put doubts in her mind about her husband’s fidelity. Sullavan avoids Bainter’s treachery by leaving the room so that she can “de-flea a few dogs,” a hilarious kiss-off. (When Sullavan stoops to bitchery, there’s always a shock because of her slight appearance and her tender fey voice, and she uses this contrast to her advantage). Unfortunately, The Shining Hour turns Sullavan’s likably self-denigrating Judy into a suicidal masochist. She rushes into a burning house to kill herself and winds up bandaged from head to foot, her eyes staring out pleadingly from a silly mummy mask.

Next, though, came her masterpiece, The Shop Around the Corner. She enters this Ernst Lubitsch film not as a star, but as Klara Novak, an ordinary girl with extraordinary ideas and an extremely petty temperament. She’s the sort of person who halts a speech to say, “Now … here comes the paradox!” There are no silver dresses here, just little blouses and skirts and a sad little fur coat. Klara enjoys being malicious to Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) her co-worker and secret pen pal. Eventually, Kralik realizes that this woman who drives him crazy at work is the same woman who has won his heart in letters, and he begins to see that underneath her abrasive personality is a woman worthy of his love.

The sobering idea of The Shop Around the Corner is that the love of our life might very well slip through our fingers because we don’t bother to really get to know people. After finding out that she is his pen pal, Stewart’s Kralik gradually starts to appreciate Klara’s freakishness, her reaching for effects. When Kralik mentions “Madame Bovary by Zola,” Klara immediately corrects him: “Madame Bovary is not by Zola,” she snipes. The joke here is that though Klara knows who wrote Madame Bovary, she doesn’t understand that she herself is living exclusively in Emma Bovary’s world of impossible ideals.

But Klara starts to catch on. It’s hard to forget what must be the most moving close-up of Sullavan’s whole career, the moment when Klara looks for a letter from Kralik and finds nothing. (Her face collapses into ruins.) Up to the last scene, it is uncertain whether Kralik and Miss Novak will come together. When they do, the film has taught us not to expect “and they lived happily ever after.” Running parallel to their love story is the tale of the shop’s owner, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), whose wife’s infidelity leads to his attempted suicide. It’s not unlikely that Klara might become another Mrs. Matuschek, dissatisfied and cuckolding her husband; there aren’t many romantic comedies that could hint at such a bleak possibility. Like most late Lubitsch films, The Shop Around the Corner is a movie filled with drastic shifts in tone. It would never have worked as well without Margaret Sullavan.

The Mortal Storm, with James Stewart

In their last film together, Borzage’s The Mortal Storm, Sullavan and Stewart are isolated in a sea of German arms heiling Hitler, a petrified forest of thuggery stared down by their romantic individualism. Here Nazis can finally be named, even if Jews are called “non-Aryans.” Borzage uses his star couple as a bulwark against Nazism. When Sullavan is shot, she merely says, “I’m very tired now,” all the air gone from her voice, giving up, finally, the fight she began in Little Man, What Now? The Borzage/Sullavan films reflect the changing times in that they get darker and darker as Nazism threatens the civilized world, going from self-absorbed hope to grim defeat and then firm resolve to fight back. Sullavan is more than the mascot of the Three Comrades; she’s the emblem of a world on the brink of war, lovely and marked for destruction.

Back Street, with Charles Boyer

Back Street, the second version of the Fannie Hurst chestnut about a selfish man and his long-suffering mistress, is indifferently directed by Robert Stevenson, but Sullavan is at her best. As Ray Smith, a feisty woman with terrible luck, she’s animated and unguarded, stopping the film cold three times with just one look. The first comes when she puts down an unwanted suitor, a punchy-big eyed wallop worthy of Bette Davis. The second time is when a friend tries to talk her out of her “back street” situation and she stares up at him defiantly, showing in a single glance all the passion she has for her lover (Charles Boyer). The third time comes after Boyer has died and his disapproving son (Tim Holt) tells her to get out of town. When he sees her face, he’s taken aback: her hair is white and she looks completely crazy with grief. This close-up is as far out on a limb as Sullavan ever went as an actress, an imaginative glimpse of raw, total despair.

“Is it too late for me to be wise?” she asks, with a stinging sort of gallows humor, as Boyer pulls her back a final time. She knows that this man is ruining her life; it’s clear that Sullavan’s Ray is aware of the perversity of her own feelings. Her first boyfriend (Richard Carlson) is sweet, loyal, gorgeous, and son-like, everything a Sullavan character generally wants in a man. But Ray is different. She’s an intelligent yet fatally unfocused woman, and she finds that she can’t do without Boyer. The film is vague about their arrangement, but Sullavan finds the dignity in it (and the angry stoicism). When she ages, she looks like Katherine Anne Porter, silver-haired, walking slowly, resigned. Instead of being ashamed when Boyer’s children denounce her, she is agitated but unyielding. Back Street (above) really highlights the terrifying stubbornness in Sullavan’s character. Along with Three Comrades and The Shop Around the Corner, it stands as her best work.

John Cromwell’s So Ends Our Night (1941) is an overlong refugee drama wherein she offers a sort of “Sullavan’s Greatest Hits” performance. She mothers young Glenn Ford, puts on a pretty silvery dress to ameliorate WWII strife, gets sick and goes to the hospital (waving to Ford from her window), and finally explodes at him, “Because I love you, you idiot!” in her Cherry Chester-tantrum voice. It’s a sketchy part, a hasty sort of farewell to her Borzage-persona. Sullavan next labored with Charles Boyer to give William A. Seiter’s Appointment for Love (1941), a dismal Universal comedy, some depth and some magic. Her character, a doctor with modern ideas about marriage, plays into Sullavan’s obvious intractability.

Cry Havoc

Her only other forties film was Cry Havoc, a surprisingly compelling WWII drama directed by Richard Thorpe. As an impatient head nurse at an understaffed hospital, Sullavan swaggers around dangerously, taking pains to flesh out how over-tired and hyped-up her character is. When she talks to her fiancée on the phone, she becomes joyous and tender, but her tiredness pulls her back down only a few moments in. She looks at the bombs defiantly, and talks toughly to the nurses, of whom she says, “They’re Americans. They believe in a happy ending.” But sad endings are Sullavan’s forte, and as she and the women are carted off to a POW camp, we know that she has malaria and that it will eventually kill her. It’s fitting that her penultimate film places her squarely into battle.

Sullavan had a theater success in The Voice of the Turtle, a racy comedy, and only came back for one more movie, No Sad Songs for Me. In this appropriate, if conventional, swan song, Sullavan plays a fifties suburban wife and mother who learns she is dying of cancer. Director Rudolph Mate holds the camera on Sullavan for long takes as she reacts to this news. Mate lets her moods, which run the gamut from despair to exaltation, dictate the whole film. In No Sad Songs for Me, Sullavan finds it in her to die in the most mature way possible, making a substantial leap from the death in her first film, Only Yesterday, which is so unsettled and self-serving. In the journey she makes from Only Yesterday to No Sad Songs for Me, Sullavan outlined the many ways in which we can die, and in between she was like a ghost at a party having one last fling, stealing one more kiss from Jimmy Stewart.

Sullavan’s personal life was covered in some detail in her daughter Brooke Hayward’s book Haywire. She went into semi-retirement in the forties so she could try to build an ideal home life with her third husband, agent Leland Hayward. Sullavan’s Southern vanity was wounded when Hayward cheated on her, and she forced a divorce, even though they still loved each other. Two of her three children, Bridget and Bill, left her to stay with their father, betraying the romanticism of Sullavan’s deepest maternal feelings. A perfectionist, Sullavan shared some of Klara Novak’s pie-in-the-sky neuroticism. The most harrowing scene in the book is the moment when Sullavan begs her son to stay with her. It’s as if the mother-love romances in her movies finally sent her over the edge; when her children rejected her, she was destroyed

Sullavan was miscast as a homebody, which Brooke Hayward realized when she saw her mother on stage in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea: “Gestures, movements, voice inflections that might seem a shade too broad, too histrionic for the business of everyday life were totally right when mounted on a proscenium, bathed in an intense light, and viewed from a distance of thirty odd feet,” Hayward noted. Sullavan began to go deaf, and she started having trouble hearing cues on stage. Finally, she took an overdose of pills. Her early death dimmed her once high reputation, but she retains devoted fans (it is said that she is Stephen Sondheim’s favorite actress). Hayward’s book was turned into a television movie in 1978, with Lee Remick as Sullavan. Remick works hard and her performance is highly suggestive. Never imitating Sullavan’s mannerisms outright, Remick nonetheless manages to capture her essence.

Once seen and heard, Margaret Sullavan is not someone you are likely to forget. She’s a mistress of hesitations; nobody lingered over the word, “Well…” like she did. She mothered vulnerable men, gathered her strength for one last spree before her lungs gave out, and put on silver dresses to give us all Borzage-style romantic hope. What made Sullavan unique? Her voice, her voice and her voice. “She didn’t seem to talk, like other people,” wrote her daughter Brooke, “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. ‘Absolutely!’ ‘Positively!’ The words hummed with the intensity of powerful incantations.” Everyone was taken by her voice. “That wonderful voice of hers,” marveled Louise Brooks. “Strange, fey, mysterious – like a voice singing in the snow.”

The haunting final shot in Three Comrades

Many of her movies feature snow. Snow falls on her fatal New Year’s Eve in Only Yesterday, while most of The Moon’s Our Home has her collapsing into snowdrifts with Fonda. She meets Boyer for the second time in Back Street as snow flurries down onto their heads, and she dies in the snow in The Mortal Storm, cradled by Jimmy Stewart. Sullavan is a spectral creature of winter, letting the cold air in, standing in any stray draft to keep the miracle of her voice supplied with fresh hoarseness. Small, but not dainty, fragile, yet fierce and imperious, she’s an actress in need of serious rediscovery and attention. It took me years to cobble together tapes of her harder to find movies; Only Yesterday is so unseen that it isn’t even listed in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. If you hear a voice as you leave a movie theater, secret, self-mocking, and lyrically intense, that’s Margaret Sullavan, still whispering in the dark, “Now … here comes the paradox …”

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NOTE: A special thanks to the PhotoFest gang – ace scanner Doug McKeown, Sullavan historian Henry Fera, and my incomparable pal Howard Mandelbaum, who runs the joint – for scouring their vast archive for some of the rare images of Margaret Sullavan in this article. A tip of the hat too to Joanne Tepper, whose expert Photoshop work made a damaged pic a thing of beauty.