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The Shopworn Angel

The Shopworn Angel(1938)

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teaser The Shopworn Angel (1938)

The Shopworn Angel really shouldn't have worked. This 1938 remakeof an earlier hit from before the days of Production Code enforcement wasso cleaned up critics who remembered the 1928 original considered it amajor letdown. The leading lady for whom MGM had bought the rights wasdead. The star they finally got (after lots of re-casting) was hardly amass audience favorite. The director had just given independent producerSam Goldwyn one of his biggest flops. And yet it all came together, thanksprimarily to the on-screen chemistry generated by co-stars MargaretSullavan and James Stewart. In fact, the film helped make Stewart a starand clearly established the screen persona that would dominate the rest ofhis career.

Dana Burnet's 1918 story "Private Pettigrew's Girl" told the slim tale of aGI on his way to World War I who falls for a Broadway chorus girl who, outof pity, marries him. She even gets her gangster lover to go along withthe ruse so that Private Pettigrew can go off to almost certain death witha smile. It had first been filmed, using the story's title, in 1919. Thenin 1928, Paramount re-made it with Nancy Carroll as the chorus girl, GaryCooper as the GI and Paul Lukas as her gangster lover. The film was a hugesuccess, winning Carroll an Oscar® nomination and establishing Cooperand Lukas as leading men.

The 1928 film was still fondly remembered when MGM bought the rights in themid-'30s, hoping to turn it into a vehicle for their resident blondebombshell, Jean Harlow. Her death in 1937 required some frantic recasting.First Joan Crawford and one-time bit player Dennis O'Keefe were announcedfor the leads. But executives decided they had other things for Crawfordto do and assigned the starring role to Rosalind Russell. When the studiodecided they needed a strong leading lady for their British productionThe Citadel (1938), however, she was shipped off to England, and therole went to Margaret Sullavan, who had just signed a short-term contractwith MGM. Melvyn Douglas was originally announced as her true love, butthe role went to Walter Pidgeon instead. And relatively new screen actorJames Stewart won the role of the naive soldier. Similar shuffling went onwith the directing assignment, as the project passed from Richard Thorpe toJulien Duvivier and finally Goldwyn contract director H.C. Potter, who hadjust completed The Goldwyn Follies (1938).

Meanwhile, screenwriter Waldo Salt, another relative newcomer, was tryingto get the story past the Production Code censors. To do so, he had toremove most of the leading lady's hard edge, in the process transformingher from chorus girl to musical star (Sullavan would be greatly helped increating this illusion by the vocals dubbed by future Broadway legend MaryMartin). Her gangster lover became a producer with an unconsummatedromantic interest in her, and Salt had to make it clear that theSullavan-Stewart relationship remained just as pure.

But for all these problems, the studio scored a big bonus by pairingSullavan and Stewart on screen. The two were old friends, having workedtogether in The University Players, a summer theatre including such otherfuture greats as Henry Fonda and director Josh Logan. Sullavan had beenone of their leading ladies when Stewart started work there as an usher inthe summer of 1932. He quickly moved up to bits and featured roles, whichwon him his first Broadway shot later that year, convincing him to continuewith acting. By the time Stewart moved to Hollywood in 1935, Sullavan wasalready established there as a star. She even used her position to fosterhis career, requesting him as leading man for the romance Next Time WeLove (1936) at Universal. The film would turn him into a leading man,though his home studio, MGM, still wasn't entirely sure what to do withhim. The Shopworn Angel would show them just that, as he turned ina simple, natural performance as the stammering, all-Americandoughboy.

The Shopworn Angel was a box office success, although it received only mixed reviews from the critics. It also led to two more teamings for Stewart andSullavan, the anti-Nazi drama The Mortal Storm (1940) and their bestfilm together, the gentle romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner(1940). Although they only made four films together, their rapport hasmade them a particular favorite among connoisseurs of screen acting. Theirteamwork may have indicated more than just friendship, at least onStewart's part. Some biographers have claimed he carried a torch forSullavan for almost two decades, using that to explain the fact that henever married until 1949. And when he did wed, few could miss theresemblance between his wife, former model Gloria Hatrick McLean, andSullavan.

Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Director: H.C. Potter
Screenplay: Waldo Salt
Based on the story "Private Pettigrew's Girl" by Dana Burnet
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Joseph C. Wright
Music: Edward Ward
Principal Cast: Margaret Sullavan (Daisy Heath), James Stewart (BillPettigrew), Walter Pidgeon (Sam Bailey), Nat Pendleton (Dice), Alan Curtis(Guy with Thin Lips), Sam Levene (Guy with Leer), Hattie McDaniel (Marthathe Maid), Charley Grapewin (Wilson the Caretaker), Virginia Grey (ChorusGirl).
BW-86m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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