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Written for the screen by Preston Sturges from a 1931 play by Ferenc Molnar, The Good Fairy (1935) is a charming tale of a wide-eyed lamb of a woman (Margaret Sullavan) who is released from a Budapest orphanage only to upend the lives of a waiter (Reginald Owen), a millionaire businessman (Frank Morgan) and a struggling lawyer (Herbert Marshall). The story's playful tone is par for the course for Molnar, a famous Hungarian playwright and novelist whose best-known work, Liliom, was turned into several movies of the same name as well as the stage and film musical Carousel (1956). Some other movies based on Molnar's works include No Greater Glory (1934), Double Wedding (1937), The Bride Wore Red (1937), The Swan (1956) and One, Two, Three (1961).
The stage version of The Good Fairy had been mounted on Broadway in 1931 with Helen Hayes in the lead. This Universal film version would be remade with Deanna Durbin in 1947 as I'll Be Yours, and later the property was turned into a 1951 Broadway musical entitled Make a Wish, for which Preston Sturges wrote the book.
For a movie as warmly comic and romantic as The Good Fairy, there sure was a lot of intense drama going on behind the scenes. First, the script was not finished when shooting began, and things got to the point where Sturges was revising scenes one day before they were shot. Second, the film's director, William Wyler, was terribly frustrated working at Universal and wanted out. According to Wyler biographer Jan Herman (A Talent for Trouble), he wrote at the time to his brother: "My soul may belong to me, but my body belongs to Universal." Little did Wyler know that this picture would spawn one of the most turbulent and unhappiest periods of his life.
Universal assigned rising star Margaret Sullavan to the project. This was only her third film, but her first two -- Only Yesterday (1933) and Little Man, What Now? (1934) -- had been big hits. She had a screen persona that could be described as magnetic adorable-ness, but in truth this masked a tempestuous and high-strung real-life personality which translated into trouble on the set. Wyler's script girl, Freda Rosenblatt, later said that Sullavan "did spiteful things to get her way. If she was tired and wanted to go home and Willy had one more scene to do, she would smear the makeup on her face. That would mean everything had to stop so she could be made up again. Which might take hours." Sullavan got into heated arguments with Wyler, who later remembered, "We fought over the interpretation of her part. We fought over everything. We didn't get along at all. She had a mind of her own, and so did I."
Eventually, Wyler realized that all the quarreling was noticeably impacting her performance, and he decided that for the good of the film, he would force himself to make peace with her. He took her to dinner, and found to his surprise over the next few days that he was falling in love with her. The feeling was mutual, and in late November 1934, the couple flew to Arizona to be married. The next day they were back at work -- the picture still had three weeks to shoot.
After production, The Good Fairy was edited quickly and released in January 1935. It was a hit. Wyler, meanwhile, was released from his studio contract. In his biography, he is quoted as saying he asked to be released. According to trade paper reports of the time, however, the studio let him go because they had grown frustrated with the slow pace of this film's production -- especially after his marriage. Apparently the studio thought he was wasting too much time taking repeated close-ups of his new bride.
In any event, Wyler was let go, and he and Sullavan embarked on a long European honeymoon. Their marriage then went south fast, with raging arguments that could be heard all over their Bel-Air neighborhood. They were divorced in mid-1936, after 16 months together. Wyler later said that the marriage to "that bratty broad" was "the roughest and meanest [time] of my life."
Despite all their problems, the thing that really ended their relationship was Wyler's discovery that Sullavan had gotten an abortion without even telling him that she was pregnant. She felt a baby would damage her career path, and she had known that Wyler would have wanted to keep the baby. When Wyler found out, he was despondent and knew that they would never be able to work things out.
The peak periods of both Wyler's and Sullavan's careers were still to come. Sullavan would star in such great films as Three Comrades (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and The Mortal Storm (1940); surprisingly she would end up making just seventeen movies in her entire career, spanning Only Yesterday to No Sad Songs For Me in 1950. (That last one came seven years after her previous movie Cry Havoc .) Wyler would plateau for longer, directing such masterworks as Dodsworth (1936), Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959), among many others.
The Good Fairy was well-received by the public and critics. The New York Times called it "engaging and often uproariously funny" and especially praised the performances of Reginald Owen and Frank Morgan. In all, the paper gave the film the equivalent of an "A" but not an "A+": "The Good Fairy is so admirable that it causes this department to regret that it is not perfect."
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Preston Sturges; Jane Hinton (English translation of play); Ferenc Molnar (play "A jo tunder")
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: David Klatzkin, Heinz Roemheld (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Daniel Mandell
Cast: Margaret Sullavan (Luisa 'Lu' Ginglebusher), Herbert Marshall (Dr. Max Sporum), Frank Morgan (Konrad), Reginald Owen (Detlaff, the Waiter), Eric Blore (Dr. Metz), Beulah Bondi (Dr. Schultz), Alan Hale (Maurice Schlapkohl).
by Jeremy Arnold