The Shopworn Angel
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The Shopworn Angel really shouldn't have worked. This 1938 remake of an earlier hit from before the days of Production Code enforcement was so cleaned up critics who remembered the 1928 original considered it a major letdown. The leading lady for whom MGM had bought the rights was dead. The star they finally got (after lots of re-casting) was hardly a mass audience favorite. The director had just given independent producer Sam Goldwyn one of his biggest flops. And yet it all came together, thanks primarily to the on-screen chemistry generated by co-stars Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. In fact, the film helped make Stewart a star and clearly established the screen persona that would dominate the rest of his career.
Dana Burnet's 1918 story "Private Pettigrew's Girl" told the slim tale of a GI on his way to World War I who falls for a Broadway chorus girl who, out of pity, marries him. She even gets her gangster lover to go along with the ruse so that Private Pettigrew can go off to almost certain death with a smile. It had first been filmed, using the story's title, in 1919. Then in 1928, Paramount re-made it with Nancy Carroll as the chorus girl, Gary Cooper as the GI and Paul Lukas as her gangster lover. The film was a huge success, winning Carroll an Oscar® nomination and establishing Cooper and Lukas as leading men.
The 1928 film was still fondly remembered when MGM bought the rights in the mid-'30s, hoping to turn it into a vehicle for their resident blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow. Her death in 1937 required some frantic recasting. First Joan Crawford and one-time bit player Dennis O'Keefe were announced for the leads. But executives decided they had other things for Crawford to do and assigned the starring role to Rosalind Russell. When the studio decided they needed a strong leading lady for their British production The Citadel (1938), however, she was shipped off to England, and the role went to Margaret Sullavan, who had just signed a short-term contract with MGM. Melvyn Douglas was originally announced as her true love, but the role went to Walter Pidgeon instead. And relatively new screen actor James Stewart won the role of the naive soldier. Similar shuffling went on with the directing assignment, as the project passed from Richard Thorpe to Julien Duvivier and finally Goldwyn contract director H.C. Potter, who had just completed The Goldwyn Follies (1938).
Meanwhile, screenwriter Waldo Salt, another relative newcomer, was trying to get the story past the Production Code censors. To do so, he had to remove most of the leading lady's hard edge, in the process transforming her from chorus girl to musical star (Sullavan would be greatly helped in creating this illusion by the vocals dubbed by future Broadway legend Mary Martin). Her gangster lover became a producer with an unconsummated romantic interest in her, and Salt had to make it clear that the Sullavan-Stewart relationship remained just as pure.
But for all these problems, the studio scored a big bonus by pairing Sullavan and Stewart on screen. The two were old friends, having worked together in The University Players, a summer theatre including such other future greats as Henry Fonda and director Josh Logan. Sullavan had been one of their leading ladies when Stewart started work there as an usher in the summer of 1932. He quickly moved up to bits and featured roles, which won him his first Broadway shot later that year, convincing him to continue with acting. By the time Stewart moved to Hollywood in 1935, Sullavan was already established there as a star. She even used her position to foster his career, requesting him as leading man for the romance Next Time We Love (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 with him. The Shopworn Angel would show them just that, as he turned in a simple, natural performance as the stammering, all-American doughboy.
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 and Sullavan, the anti-Nazi drama The Mortal Storm (1940) and their best film together, the gentle romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Although they only made four films together, their rapport has made them a particular favorite among connoisseurs of screen acting. Their teamwork may have indicated more than just friendship, at least on Stewart's part. Some biographers have claimed he carried a torch for Sullavan for almost two decades, using that to explain the fact that he never married until 1949. And when he did wed, few could miss the resemblance between his wife, former model Gloria Hatrick McLean, and Sullavan.
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 (Bill Pettigrew), Walter Pidgeon (Sam Bailey), Nat Pendleton (Dice), Alan Curtis (Guy with Thin Lips), Sam Levene (Guy with Leer), Hattie McDaniel (Martha the Maid), Charley Grapewin (Wilson the Caretaker), Virginia Grey (Chorus Girl).
BW-86m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller