The Shopworn Angel (1938): Remembering Margaret Sullavan

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“Dreaming’s alright if it’s all you got but if you find the real thing you’re just not satisfied with it anymore.” – Jimmy Stewart as Bill

It’s 1917: the eve of the U.S. entry in WWI. The nation is yet to feel the jadedness of everyone else in mainland Europe. James Stewart seems perfectly cast as a fresh-faced soldier boy, or as the contemporary vernacular goes, a Doughboy, named Bill Pettigrew. The whole country seems to be caught up in Jingoism spurred on by the tunes of George M. Cohan and exuberant patriotic parades.

For his part, when he’s not drilling with his buddies, Bill is observing the mating customs precipitated by men going off to war. The counter of the soda fountain boasts a waitress who is a sweetheart to the masses. He gains a lesson in the facts of life.

For Daisy Heath (Margaret Sullavan), it disrupts her rest as she tries to sleep off the previous night’s reveries. She looks perfectly disheveled in a kind of manicured Hollywood sort of way, lounging in her evening dress, hair perfectly askew.

Her longtime socializing partner is the perfectly civilized Sam Bailey (Walter Pidgeon) who looks to have never worked a day in his life, at least in any menial capacity. The war doesn’t concern people of their stature or breeding, and they’d rather not be bothered with its nuisance. She makes a living on the stage where he finances and they spend their evenings drowning in the bubbly ’til the wee hours of the morning.

These would remain two separate stories of two vastly incongruous lifestyles if it were not for Jimmy Stewart’s penchant for stepping into oncoming traffic. You see, he’s from a small, two-horse town where the horses outnumber the automobiles.

So when he’s just about run over, about to join back with his outfit, he finds himself thrown into a cab commandeered by a demonstrative but kindly street cop who’s looking out for his servicemen. However, when the doors close his coinhabitant happens to be Ms. Heath.

Given the circumstances, they get off on the wrong foot as she feels put upon and turns slightly snide, cutting Stewart’s callow Texaner’s naivete down to size. She’s a city dweller with no patience for yokums of his ilk. Again, this initial encounter might as well be the end of the picture right there, if not for Bill’s attempt at a masquerade to impress the boys.

From the story he dreams up, his beau is an extravagant movie star, and he’s got them all heartily impressed (if he’s telling the truth). In other words, they’re rightfully suspicious their dorky buddy could land such a dame.

Next Time We Love proved a fairly stale weepie, albeit boasting the fledgling leads as well as a handsome best friend played by Ray Milland. Here you have an agreeable, if lesser, second-fiddle in Walter Pidgeon. However, while maintaining Sullavan and Stewart, it has more get-up-and-go in its chassis to carry us forward.

Whereas Ralph Bellamy would always be playing this part as the other man on the outside looking in, Stewart gets the benefit of our attentions in his pursuit of a woman from such a different stratosphere than he’s accustomed to. After all, he’s just a “dumb country rube” as she so eloquently puts it, but he’s also got all the charm of Jimmy Stewart at his disposal, growing more assured by the minute.

One second he’s educating Pidgeon in the art of rolling cigarettes, and the novelty of the experience has the other man deciding he wants to put on a show for the soldiers. Far from being jealous, he seems caught up in camp life. Bill couldn’t be happier, getting a chance to show Daisy around camp one evening after the show, and she reciprocates by showing him the city limits.

They take on the raucous funhouse attractions of Coney Island together, and Sam finally allows his jealousy to come out; he’s realizing the depth of his feelings for Daisy even as she becomes more and more charmed by Bill’s brand of geniality. Still, their time together looks to have a short leash due to his impending deployment.

Surely it cannot last. And yet he makes a rash decision so he can see her one last time; he goes AWOL to say goodbye, and she drops everything to join him. It hits the height of the rom-com preposterousness right about here.

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At times, Shopworm Angel feels like a testy high wire act to navigate feelings without totally ruffling feathers. How will it fit together between Bill, Daisy, Sam, and the immovable reality of war? The pieces look ill-suited to align and yet on all accounts, the trio carries their parts with a certain aplomb that falls together nicely.

You may or may not be astonished by what happens next, but it sets up a teary-eyed ending where Sullavan goes out with a stiff upper lip singing “Pack up Your Troubles” (with the aid of Mary Martin’s vocals).

Shopworn Angel was reborn as a relic of the Pre-Code era meant for a fresh take with one of its icons, Jean Harlow, who died tragically in 1937. Instead, it got retrofitted with a new cast, including Sullavan, and toned down its content to appease the norms of the late ’30s, bleedings into the ’40s. Daisy was no longer a chorus singer but a stage performer and Sam, in part, gained a more respectable pedigree.

However, equally important to the film’s success is the subtext of Stewart and Sullavan in real life. Because not unlike their screen romance, Stewart had unacknowledged feelings for her even as their friendship and professional careers continued to bloom. His, in part, because she encouraged him and helped with drawing out his own tendencies in the performances he gave. Their first two pictures together are fine proof.

They both met in an acting brigade back in the early days, which included Henry Fonda, Stewart’s longtime friend and also Sullavan’s first husband. However, she was the one who broke first in Hollywood, and it was partially thanks to her encouragement and tutelage that Stewart was able to get a leg up in Hollywood. He got beyond the bit parts and supporting spots MGM was handing him in pictures like After The Thin Man and Wife Vs. Secretary to develop the persona the moviegoing world would come to admire.

The actual screen partnership between Sullavan and Stewart started off in The Next Time We Love with the pinnacle arriving in 1940 when they would star in Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm and then their most acclaimed pairing The Shop Around The Corner, which at the very least, has become revitalized through Christmastime viewing (and maybe its tenuous relationship with You Got Mail).

Thereabouts James Stewart would shoot off into superstardom on the silver screen and the Christmastime circuit. It’s a Wonderful Life is a Yuletide stalwart for many folks even if they don’t know a plethora of Stewart classics with the likes of Capra, Hitchcock, and Mann.

But the bottom line is that none of this would have been possible if not for Margaret Sullavan — an actress who was known to be difficult, who cycled through numerous marriages, and who ultimately died in 1960 before her time after struggles with hearing loss and mental illness. Still, do yourself a favor and search out her films.

While not to everyone’s taste, she is a singular actress with her own sense of beauty, assurance, and grace — husky-voiced but often warm and sentimental. Stewart loved her dearly and even after he was married in 1949 and she died in 1960, Sullavan’s lifelong friendship impacted him greatly.

It’s true you rarely forget those you came up with (like Henry Fonda) or those who were fighting in your corner (like Sullavan). Thanks be to Margaret Sullavan for being a friend to Jimmy Stewart and for leaving a body of work worth rediscovering on its own merit. She was a Good Fairy and a Shopworn Angel all rolled into one.

3.5/5 Stars

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