I went to a double feature in Hollywood the other night that knocked my socks off. The American Cinematheque is having a festival of films that they consider “Overlooked and Underrated,” including many that are not available on DVD. This week they showed two Frank Borzage-directed films, both starring that winsome, unique, and ultimately tragic actress Margaret Sullavan.
What’s the deal with Margaret Sullavan? At the risk of causing a major rift in my marriage, dare I say that her fame has not exactly withstood the test of time? While a huge star in the late 1930s and early 40s, she is rarely discussed today and I would bet that the average person on the street, especially those under 60, have never heard of her, or if they do recognize the name confuse her with Tarzan’s Jane and Mia Farrow’s mom, Maureen O’Sullivan. Not that my household is part of that demographic—Kendall wrote a whole chapter about Margaret Sullavan in her as-yet-unpublished new book and I’ve always been a fan of the actress who I remember in such wonderful films as “The Shopworn Angel” (in which her singing voice was dubbed by Broadway star Mary Martin) and especially Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner.” Both of these films co-starred Jimmy Stewart, Sullivan’s frequent on-screen partner. The two of them shared a rare and exquisite chemistry, with Stewart’s hopeful innocence playing off of Sullavan’s troubled sweetness.
It seems like all of Sullavan’s movie characters were simple girls at heart who were plagued by darker forces. Her characters usually managed to avoid or ignore the complexities of their lives for a good part of the movie but ultimately failed to stave off the tragedies that awaited them, most often culminating in the characters’ untimely deaths. Gore Vidal once 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.”
I had never seen either of the films screening at the Cinematheque this week so I eagerly headed over to Hollywood. I was surprised that both were MGM movies (I never considered Sullavan a member of the MGM stock company) but what really floored me was the controversial content of the films. “Three Comrades” was based on a book by Erich Maria Remarkque describing the lives of three disillusioned German World War I vets in 1920s Berlin. The film was made in 1938 when the Nazis were in full power and Europe was moving closer and closer to all-out war. You’d think in the late 1930s MGM would go out of its way to avoid showing Germans in anything but a negative light but the film presented a hopeful, sympathetic portrait of Germany’s position in the world even though there are increasing references to the unnamed Nazi party that was beginning to kick up trouble.
American stars Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young turn in great performances as the three German soldiers. One of the most amazing things about movies like this is seeing the arrogance on the part of American studios to set films in foreign countries without the slightest pretense of actors speaking the native language, having any kind of accent, or even refraining from using the popular American vernacular of the day. Hearing Taylor, Tone, and Young speak in American slang, it took me a moment to realize that we are supposed to accept that they are really German men talking German in Germany. It is the hunky but slightly doltish Robert Taylor who falls for the former aristocrat but now penniless Pat Hollmann played by Margaret Sullavan. But the three male leads are so close, so bonded, that it almost feels like Sullavan is being passed around among them, in some kind of wholesome yet homoerotic ménage à quatre. It’s rare to see such close friendships between men depicted in movies today, although the 1970s classic “The Deer Hunter” was partially based on this story.
One of the major claims to fame of “Three Comrades” is that the script was written by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald during his brief Hollywood years. Desperate for funds, he took several movie gigs, work he found demeaning, but despite some major rewrite work on classics such as “Gone With the Wind,” “Three Comrades” is the only film for which he received screen credit. Of course one of the best things to come out of Fitzgerald’s stint in Hollywood was his unfinished and posthumously published novel “The Last Tycoon,” based on the life of MGM’s wunderkind, Irving Thalberg.
While Fitzgerald’s script sometimes seems a little too literate for its own good, the performances in “Three Comrades” are beyond reproach. I was intrigued by Franchot Tone’s moving portrayal. Tone was married to Joan Crawford during the making of this film but the marriage was already in ruins, with the very private and publicity-shy actor woefully mismatched with Crawford and her legendary obsession with image and career. It was a mutual attraction to Franchot Tone that sparked the famous rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, an animosity that would survive long past the time when Tone would give either one of them the time of day. But despite his infamy as the recipient of romantic attention, I found him to be a subtle, gifted actor.
Having grown up watching Robert Young as the iconic patriarch in TV’s “Father Knows Best” and as the world’s most compassionate doctor in “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” I’m always surprised to be reminded what a huge movie star he was in the 30s and 40s, appearing opposite the most glamorous dames in Hollywood. In “Three Comrades” he plays the most troubled of the German vets, disgusted at the condition of his beloved country, spouting many comments about the hooligans we know are the up-and-coming Nazis.
Young appears again with Sullavan in the second film I saw the other night, 1940’s “The Mortal Storm.” The storyline of this film was even more shocking to me. At this point the war had already begun in Europe, with the United States gearing up to battle Hitler’s forces, and yet, once again, the film begins by presenting an idyllic portrait of the Fatherland in the period leading up to Hitler’s 1933 power grab. This time director Borzage was allowed to mention the Nazis by name and swastika flags, armbands, and other Nazi paraphernalia are visible throughout the film (including a very cool light fixture with swastika cutouts that produced giant swastikas on the walls and ceiling—I wonder how much this prop went for at the MGM auction!). Still, MGM being MGM, the word Jew was never uttered in the film, even though it’s quite obvious that the Frank Morgan character, Margaret Sullavan’s beloved university professor father, was supposed to be a Jew married to an “Aryan” woman. All of the Jews in “The Mortal Storm” are referred to as “non-Aryans,” a euphemism I found absurd. Who were they afraid of offending, Jews or Nazis? Notice the total lack of Nazis in the poster for the film. You'd think the story was set in Brooklyn.
Everyone in the small German town worships Morgan’s character who is celebrating his 60th birthday when the film opens. But it all changes that first night when it is announced that Hitler has become the new German Chancellor. Margaret Sullavan’s Freya Roth has just announced her engagement to Robert Young’s Fritz Marberg, who is already like a second son to Morgan. There’s a great moment when the news about Hitler comes in and we are all expecting wonderful, kindly Fritz to greet the news with horror. Instead, he jumps for joy at the report and whips Freya’s Aryan half-brothers into a frenzy about all the great things Hitler is going to do for Germany. Fritz’s best friend, Martin Breitner, played by Jimmy Stewart, finally registers the horror we had hoped to see in our leading man, and after Robert Young continues his transformation into a full-fledged Nazi out to purify the German race, Sullavan switches her allegiance to the “good German” played by Stewart.
Although this film was made at a time when the atrocities of the Final Solution had not yet begun, it does depict the endless persecution faced by Jews in Germany in the early 1930s including being stripped of their livelihoods and being thrown into concentration camps. We see Morgan, the Wizard of Oz himself, being visited in a German concentration camp by his loyal wife, played by the imperial Irene Rich, but no mention is made of the Nuremburg Laws, already in effect in Germany, that prohibited marriages between Aryans and Jews.
The film boasts a gaggle of other meaty characters including Dan Dailey as a violent young Nazi leader (how would the Nazis have reacted if they knew about Dailey’s penchant for crossdressing?), Maria Ouspenskaya as Stewart’s elderly mother (at least she had an accent even if it was the wrong one), and 16-year-old Bonita Granville who plays a simpleton maid with a wild crush on Jimmy Stewart. Throughout the film, poor Bonita is constantly being attacked behind closed doors by the Nazi thugs (it’s pretty obvious they’re having their way with her) forcing the poor girl to give up Stewart’s whereabouts again and again. Today happens to be Bonita Granville’s birthday (she would have been 84 but died of cancer in 1988) and I can’t help but think of her other big movie about this topic, “Hitler’s Children” in which Granville plays an American citizen of German descent who gets trapped in Germany when the war breaks out and is forced to join the Hitler Youth program and adopt the ideals of Nazism. I think “Hitler’s Children” is an amazing film but compared to “The Mortal Storm” it is about as subtle as the kick of a stormtrooper’s boots.
Needless to say, poor Margaret Sullavan doesn’t survive either film. From the moment she lets out with a little cough in “Three Comrades,” we know she's doomed. After changing the lives of the three male leads, she succumbs to a bad case of tuberculosis. At least in movies such deaths are elegant and ladylike. Sullavan's demise is much more violent in “The Mortal Storm.” She is gunned down by the Nazis (under orders from former fiancé Marcus Welby) seconds before skiing to safety across the border. Oy.
In real life, Sullavan’s end was no less tragic. Following two brief and troubled marriages (to actor Henry Fonda and director William Wyler), Margaret married agent and producer Leland Hayward with whom she had three children. It was her oldest daughter Brooke Hayward who penned “Haywire,” one of the best memoirs ever written about Hollywood. Sullavan tried to make family life work but her marriage to Hayward was not working out, she suffered from serious depression, and her children Bridget and Bill had their own mental problems (culminating in Bridget’s suicide at the age of 21). On January 1, 1960, the 48-year-old Sullavan was found dead in a Connecticut hotel room. The authorities believed she had taken a deliberate overdose of barbiturates but some people, including Kendall, don’t believe the actress intended to commit suicide. In any event, she had been quite miserable. Sullavan was appearing in a new play headed for Broadway. In an interview published just before her death, she said, “The theater is a cruel place, a horrible place. Oh, you don’t know how difficult it is to make myself come back to it. It is hell.”
Poor sad Margaret Sullavan. If you’re listening, know that for us it is absolute heaven watching you in your short but powerful body of work.