Classic Film: James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan’s Legendary Relationship
When people think of iconic on-screen romantic pairings, their minds tend to go to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. These thoughts are driven by the fact that these couples made multiple critically and commercially successful films together and were romantically involved in real life. Watching people, who are romantically involved in real-life, fall in love on screen does excite audiences as you have the thrill of wondering whether reality and fiction blurred on set. I completely understand the appeal of this sort of couple. Still, I also think that we should direct more attention to an underrated romantic pairing that achieved massive success back in the 1930s and 1940s without causing a real-life romance to occur. So, when it came to James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, their off-screen friendship did help to stimulate their fantastic chemistry on screen. But the tension that existed as a result of Stewart’s unrequited love for her did make for a fascinating study in sexual tension and male insecurity.
The two had considerably different personalities and on-screen personas as Stewart was known as a friendly everyman who verged on being dorky at times while Sullavan was a hard-nosed firecracker who didn’t suffer fools. Stewart was unusually authentic for a Hollywood star as he didn’t adopt a stage name and retained that famed wobbly voice of his even when these choices seemed to go against the principles of the studio system. His sweetness and the fact that he wasn’t traditionally handsome initially made it difficult for him to find leading man roles in the era of the stoic Gary Cooper and the roguishly charming Clark Gable. It was Sullavan who helped to turn his career around as the two met in 1932 as part of the University Player’s Production in Cape Cod, New York City, and immediately became friends. At the time, Sullavan was married to actor Henry Fonda, who would become another lifelong friend of Stewart’s. Still, their relationship was breaking down, and she saw potential in her newfound friend. He considered quitting acting altogether when he could only find bit parts in plays that were often financially unsuccessful, but in 1935, everything changed for him when he signed a seven-year contract with MGM. At first, he didn’t flourish at the studio as he was forced into supporting parts yet again, but Sullavan’s tutelage during this period improved his acting ability, and as her star began to rise, she found herself gaining the ability to promote her friend.
By 1936 she was far more successful than Stewart as she had attracted attention from Hollywood in the early 1930s but had the confidence to reject offers from Paramount and Columbia as well as insisting that she be able to continue to work on the stage. She finally accepted an offer in 1933 from Universal Pictures and received top billing in Only Yesterday (1933) even though this was her film debut. The film was the studio’s only major success that year, and Sullavan quickly began carving out a niche as independent, plucky women who conceal their vulnerability with unexpected brusqueness. She followed up her first major success with popular films like The Good Fairy (1935) and So Red the Rose (1935), which proved that she was an asset to her studio. With this success behind her, she had more authority, and when it came time to cast her leading man in Next Time We Love (1936), she had a hand in getting Stewart cast. He had to be loaned out from MGM to appear in the film, but because his stock was low, Universal did not have much trouble borrowing him from their rival studio.
Stewart’s persona seems set in stone now as we all imagine him as a boyish, naive, impossibly kind man who is prone to quick flashes of anger during the early part of his career, but in the mid-1930s, he hadn’t quite put all of the pieces together. When you watch Small Town Girl (1936), you’re struck by the fact that he seems so much more intimidating than usual as he has a stiff gait that was presumably meant to make him seem more manly, and he doesn’t even get to show off that megawatt smile. It was his work with Sullavan that brought out the best in him as he could give up some of the unnatural affectations he had to pick up to play a variety of roles and could focus on developing the natural chemistry that existed between himself and his dear friend. He does seem to be far more comfortable and relaxed in Next Time We Love, and you do believe in his love for his co-star as he tenderly brushes tendrils of her hair away from her forehead or regards her fondly from afar. She also comes alive with him as the push-pull dynamic between the two of them plays into her strengths. She gets to smile as she revels in the power she holds over her comparatively meek love interest. But she also loves his fragility, honesty, and we sense that she would fall apart if he weren’t there to support her. It’s easy to see why people flocked to the cinema to watch the two of them fall in and out of love as there is something effortless about the way they spar with one another. To some degree, I can see why this early collaboration has been all but forgotten as their later efforts outshine it. Still, something is thrilling about watching a star come into his own, and you get to see the Stewart persona molded into near perfection here.
Unfortunately, the success of his first pairing with Sullavan was not enough to make Stewart a top star at MGM. He was miscast in the wacky B-movie Speed (1936), which failed to resonate with audiences as well as doing severe damage to his reputation. In watching the film, I realized that the studio was trying to turn him into something he was never going to be. They wanted a generic action star and didn’t appreciate the unique, gentle charm that Stewart brought to the screen. His career languished for a short period as he found himself stuck in films like 7th Heaven (1937) that weren’t suited for him, but he received praise for In Navy Blue and Gold (1937) and the following year he finally cemented himself as a leading man. It was You Can’t Take It with You (1938) that made him a bankable leading man in the eyes of studio executives as it was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year and won Best Picture. But his other 1938 roles were also significant in helping him become a box office juggernaut. While he slowly rose to the top, Sullavan was in the prime of her career, and in 1938, she had her biggest year yet as she would earn a Best Actress nomination for her performance as a tragic young prostitute who falls in love with a man and his friends in Three Comrades (1938). As both of them became famous as individual stars, it was only natural that they be cast alongside one another again.
I have to admit that The Shopworn Angel (1938) might be my least favorite of all of the films they made together as it attempts to neuter their fantastic chemistry. She plays a cynical Broadway star while he plays a starstruck young soldier who worships her even as she harshly dismisses him, but of course, they end up falling in love. Sadly I think the script hurts them here as they are left yelling at one another about minor issues. Yet, they don’t get the opportunity to explore the underlying sexual tension that exists between them. Sullavan’s character comes across as mean in this film as she has none of the redeeming features that make a lot of her other tough broads so easy to like. When she inevitably falls into Stewart’s arms, we all shrug as you end up feeling like he’s too good for her. Despite my qualms, I can’t deny the fact that the film was a financial success at the time and thank goodness for that. If it had failed, we might not have gotten the two excellent films they made together in 1940.
I must note that Stewart’s passion for Sullavan only grew more intense as they began to spend more time working together. But as she drifted from William Wyler to Leland Hayward, he remained a bachelor in the eyes of the public. It has been alleged that he had an affair with Marlene Dietrich in 1939 and accidentally impregnated her, but he was never publicly presented as a lothario in the style of Errol Flynn and was valued for his clean-cut appearance. They remained friends through all of this as well as staying close to Fonda, who continued to build model trains with Stewart while starring alongside Sullavan in several films. It may have been Sullavan’s past relationship with Fonda that kept her from pursuing Stewart or their conflicting natures, but they didn’t end up going out in real life. This didn’t mean that they weren’t friends or didn’t spend time together, but their relationship didn’t involve illicit trysts or even romantic love letters. It was a bond built on trust and admiration for one another, and this mutual respect bled over into the roles they played.
In 1940 they appeared in two classic films that never fail to make me cry. Perhaps the most significant of these was The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which is often listed as one of the greatest and most influential romantic comedies ever made. Anybody who has seen You’ve Got Mail (1998) will have a vague idea of what it’s all about, but it essentially follows two colleagues who don’t get along in person who ends up falling in love with one another via letter correspondence under different names. This is one of those great high concept premises, and Stewart and Sullavan do their absolute best to sell it as they are at their most charismatic here. I’m sure their Hungarian accents weren’t incredibly accurate, but there is a certain charm to the way that they over enunciate individual syllables. They also get to even up their dynamic here as Stewart isn’t just the dorky nice guy in this film but a complicated young man with pride who often can’t handle being challenged. Through his letters, we see the usual Stewart as he is sweet and caring to a fault, but when he’s at work, he can be cruel and unkind. The two of them seem to be enjoying the hell out of themselves as they lob insults back and forth, and Sullavan is radiant when she gets particularly mad at Stewart in certain scenes. I also found myself touched by the fact that so much of the romance is built on a foundation of trust and respect that often comes from friendship, not romance. You believe Stewart and Sullavan as colleagues because they had worked alongside one another for so many years, so their banter at work feels honest and lived in. If you don’t cry at the end, I think you might be heartless, and most of that’s down to the lovability of the two leading actors and the desperation with which we want to see them united.
The other, less famous film they appeared in together that year was The Mortal Storm (1940), which was one of the earliest anti-Nazi movies produced in Hollywood. Their chemistry is just as intense here, but there is more emotional and sexual repression going on as most of their big moments together involve a gaze held for just a moment too long or a brush of fingertips. Sullavan is at her feistiest, but Stewart develops righteous anger as the film goes along, and when Sullavan’s character dies, you feel Stewart’s horror. He holds her like she’s the most precious thing in the world, but he also seems respectful of her, and she looks at him without a hint of the cynicism she directs at other things. As a pair, they can make the audience invest in the relationship between their characters as well as bringing even the most jaded moviegoer to tears, and it’s utterly magical.
It’s a shame that their careers went in separate directions after this banner year as Stewart won Best Actor at the Academy Awards for The Philadelphia Story (1940) and was a durable leading man for the next twenty years while Sullavan’s career slowed down. She stepped away from making films in 1943 to raise her children and chose to do stage work in the 1950s, but her mental health began to deteriorate. Her relationship with Hayward had been turbulent for a long time, but when he started a serious extramarital affair with Slim Hawks in 1947, she filed for divorce. This put a severe strain on her as she found herself trying to care for three children on her own, and she claimed that her ex-husband was trying to get them to turn against her. In a memoir entitled “Haywire,” her daughter Brooke wrote about her mother’s tragic mental breakdown in 1955, which was driven by the knowledge that her children were abandoning her. They wanted to stay with their father permanently, and Sullavan was afraid of being alone. She spent a large part of the last years of her life in mental institutions before dying in 1960 as the result of an accidental overdose. Sullavan never made another film with Stewart during her lifetime, although the two remained friends. As the years passed, he solidified his status as a screen icon while she became less and less relevant. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a place in the American Theatre Hall of Fame, but Stewart is ranked third on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list and has far more name recognition with people today than Sullavan.
One wonders whether we might have gotten another classic film if they had collaborated again. Still, the four films they made together serve as evidence of their remarkable chemistry, and I would encourage everybody to appreciate the beautiful love stories they brought to life on screen.