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David Thomson on Films: Remembering Margaret Sullavan, Who Would Have Been 100 (or 102) This Year

Every now and then, you run into people who have not seen The Shop Around the Corner. These men and women seem normal enough. They speak English, they wear clothes, they comb their hair. They may be walking the dog or looking for a pinot noir at a party, and they say, “What was that film you mentioned?” They’re good-natured about their ignorance, especially when you tell them the film is 71 years old and in black-and-white. There are people who reckon those conditions are beyond their range or pay level, like the famine in East Africa or the bubbling of the permafrost in Siberia. Never mind, you say, not having seen The Shop Around the Corner is easier to remedy than those other problems. And this week I am taking the opportunity to remember the film because Margaret Sullavan would have been a hundred this year (or 102—read on). Not that she ever showed much promise of getting close to those ages.

In The Shop Around the Corner, Ms. Sullavan played Klara Novak, an impoverished young woman who needs a job and finds it at Matuschek’s, the smartest gift and novelty store in Budapest, granted that this Hungary is built on the MGM sound stages in Culver City. Klara gets the job against the wishes of Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), Mr. Matuschek’s most able employee. Indeed, Alfred and Klara do not get on. They are both attractive (to a point), intelligent, looking for love, and single. And when they look at one another they get into a kind of pose—looking down, gazing up—that sometimes seems the start of chemistry. Still, they are both characters of strong opinion or stubbornness and they are convinced they do not like each other.

They have another trait in common: They are both involved in epistolary relationships with strangers that are on the edge of declarations of love. Further, they are—without knowing it—each other’s each other. The arc of the film (directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and written by Samson Raphaelson) is whether they are going to be too true to what they think to notice what they feel. Are they actors or characters? I won’t tell you how it ends, but this may be one of the happier stories set in Budapest in the 1940s.

There are also people who say that Margaret Sullavan was not even the most beautiful film star of, say, 1940. They point to Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman, and so on, and begin to stress bone structure, chin shape, the luster of hair. I suppose they have points. It’s just that Margaret Sullavan was the most adorable of them all, and that has to do with her conflicting intelligence and vulnerability, her yearning eyes and her sand-on-silk voice. She seems always to be feeling a prospect of chill or loss, but that risk is emotional. I daresay I feel an urge to take care of her, though if you read about her life you see how many people recognized the hopelessness of that challenge and the difficulty of reassuring her.

She was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1911 (there is some argument about the year, but why let that get in the way?) and she overcame her parents’ resistance to the idea of her becoming an actress. She was in love with the stage first and she joined the University Players—that’s where she met Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, who was her first husband. Men fell in love with her, and she responded, but she seemed always torn. She had an affair with the stage director, Jed Harris, one of the more dangerous men around. She dropped Fonda and then she married the director William Wyler (he worked with her on The Good Fairy). Next in line was the agent and producer Leland Hayward, the love of her life and the father of her three children—Brooke, Bill, and Bridget. But that marriage ended in 1947 when Hayward took up with Slim Hawks, the wife who was getting ready to leave another director, Howard Hawks.

Sullavan was a movie star from the mid-’30s to the early ’40s, and she made some big pictures—So Red the Rose, The Mortal Storm, Three Comrades, Back Street—yet nothing as fine as The Shop Around the Corner. But she was conflicted: She wanted to spend more time doing stage work, and she also longed to be a closer mother to her children. Out of the conflict there came depression plus an early problem with her hearing—and Sullavan had a way of speaking quietly and lightly to convey intimacy. Suppose she felt she was no longer being heard properly.

On stage she did The Voice of the Turtle, The Deep Blue Sea, and even Sabrina Fair when she was really too old for the part (it was Audrey Hepburn when they made the movie). She had a fourth husband but less and less delight. She was treated for depression and she had difficult ties with some of her children. The story is told in her daughter Brooke Hayward’s book, Haywire, which has no equal at describing the mix of show business and family life. Sullavan died on New Year’s Day, 1960. The official verdict was accidental death, but there were reasons for believing in a suicidal impulse. And impulsiveness was a key energy in Margaret Sullavan. Sometimes you can see an idea taking her over, and then you realize how crushed she is by it in just a moment. In the course of The Shop Around the Corner, Klara goes to her mail box in search of a letter from her friend. But the box is empty. Lubitsch shoots her looking in from the back of the box and her face shows anticipation turning to ruin. It is one of the great shots in cinema. And maybe you haven’t seen it yet, even if your hair is combed and you don’t often celebrate 102nd anniversaries.

Some people say, “Didn’t Nora Ephron remake that film, with … Meg Ryan?” I tell them, no.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.