May 2, 2006

The Engaging Miss Margaret

"There might be a lot we don't know about each other. You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth."

As Jimmy Stewart's character says in Ernst Lubitsch's achingly-good Shop Around the Corner, people seldom go to the trouble of finding out more about those they encounter everyday. I've seen this particular scene in the film several times, never failing to catch it in a rare airing on TCM - and it never fails to be as moving with each successive viewing. When I watched it most recently, though, it was the young woman Jimmy's character was speaking to that caught my attention more than his words: the beautiful, husky-voiced Margaret Sullavan.

I was first introduced to Sullavan in 1940's Shop, read about her brief, stormy 1931 marriage to Henry Fonda in his autobiography (it was both his first nuptuals and hers), and marvelled at those big, pensive eyes while watching her play opposite Stewart in 1938's The Shopworn Angel just yesterday. Her fragility and stubborness seem almost too innate to be completely effaced from the women she plays, and so whether she is a haughty young shopgirl, a glamorous society woman, or an ordinary lady with extraordinary expectations, there is an unmistakable amalgam of vulnerability and obstinance that I have yet to see so exemplified by any other actress of her time.

Sullavan made only seventeen movies in her career, yet to me, she is a standout performer whose personal pain and neediness translate all too well to her characters on the big screen. After her marriage to Fonda dissolved in 1932, she had a lurid affair with Broadway director Jed Harris, then leapt into the real-life role of director William Wyler's wife to avoid furthering her relationship with Harris. It wasn't until she married agent-producer Leland Hayward (who happened to be Fonda's agent and close personal friend) in 1936 that she settled into a more stable lifestyle; the couple had three children before divorcing in 1947: Brooke, Bridget, and Bill. Venturing away from film and back to her first love, the stage, Sullavan once again drew crowds with her solid, enchanting acting in the 1950s. As her theatrical career began to sour and her family life began to collapse, though, she inevitably battled substance abuse issues; her death of barbituate overdose in 1960 was ruled an accident.

Margaret Sullavan had such an impact on me as impetuous shopgirl Klara Novak in Shop Around the Corner that I can never discount her when thinking of my favorite actors to ever grace the silver screen: she's full of nearly-impossible ideals and dreaming far beyond the boundaries of her humdrum young city life, her natural vibrancy and her enthusiasm for her secret romance barely subdued by the seriousness of her work environment and the bland duties she must attend to. I only wish that watching her - Margaret, Klara, any number of the women she became - I only wish could admire those rueful eyes without knowing the reality of this versatile and boundless actress's unrealized potential and too-short life.

Don't miss The Shopworn Angel on TCM Saturday, May 27.

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