26 November 2010
I complained a couple of months ago about the un-Lubitsch-like “Heaven Can Wait” (1943), and fretted secretly that I might have already seen all the magical light comedies of the 30s and 40s. But I’ve rediscovered my old-movie faith after watching “The Good Fairy,” written by the pitch-perfect Preston Sturges (adapted from a Hungarian play by Ferenc Molnár) and starring the effervescent Margaret Sullavan — she of “The Shop Around the Corner” fame. Whereas in “Shop” she could be ever-so-slightly grating, an actorly move that made the conclusion even more satisfying, in this earlier film Sullavan is nothing but lovely. She plays a quintessential naïf: Luisa Ginglebusher, a girl who leaves the orphanage where she’s spent her whole life to work as an usherette in a grand Budapest movie theater. As she leaves, the orphanage’s matron reminds her to continue to do a good deed every single day, an imperative that combines inextricably in Luisa’s mind with the tales she’s been telling the orphanage’s younger girls about the good fairy who does good deeds and helps the weak. Luisa wants to be the good fairy. Despite all that innocence, Sullavan manages to exude a kind of gravitas that makes this film very Lubitsch-like (it was actually directed by William Wyler) — that is, it always manifests a sweet melancholy just a little bit below the surface of the movie’s antics.
Sullavan has a great face, but not one you immediately categorize as beautiful. As David Thomson puts it, nailing it as usual, “One realized that she was beautiful when her face lit up in response to the events of the film. Above all, she seemed vulnerable, haboring her strength and the chance of happiness.” That’s certainly the case here, made even more clear by the director’s use of glowing closeups to accentuate her face — we watch her weep a little as she watches a sad scene in a movie, or as she beams in response to good news. Luisa is so innocent that every single emotion washes over her face for us to comprehend. We may not exactly understand one so naïve, but we love her.
“The Good Fairy” is a post-Hays Code kind of sex comedy — that is, it pivots on the question of sex and female chastity without ever seeming risqué. The plot really starts to cook in the theater, where her innocence proves to be catnip for men. Approached by a dark-looking Cesar Romero who offers her beer and sandwiches, clearly as a first gambit to get into her knickers, she flails desperately to get away from him and succeeds only by announcing that she’s married — then races into the arms of a grouchy theater patron named Detlaff (Reginald Owen, with the bowler above). Detlaff takes a paternal liking to Luisa and invites her out for a fancy evening at the elegant hotel where he works as a waiter; little does he realize that her catnip qualities will only attract more dangerous attention there. The most persistent is the simultaneously dapper and bumbling Konrad (Frank Morgan, who later did the same routine as the Wizard of Oz), the millionaire president of a South American meat-packing concern, who sweeps her into a private dining room and promises her furs, baubles, and lovely dresses. The vigilant Detlaff recognizes the risk of such a sugar daddy, and warns her to put Konrad off; yet again, she gets out of a jam by pronouncing that she’s married. Unperturbed, Konrad declares that he’ll win her heart by making her husband rich enough to buy her lovely things — that way, when she wears them she’ll know they’re really from him. Luisa decides that this is her opportunity to do someone a good deed, so she opens the phone book, randomly chooses a name, and tells Konrad that this is her husband.
She chose well: Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall) is indeed poor and deserving, a lawyer who adheres strictly to a code of ethics and assists the poor, though he’s perhaps a little too serious. Konrad bestows him with a crazily lucrative contract, a wad of spending money, and instructions to replace all his shabby office furniture. In fact, he’s in the middle of admiring his new purchases — most of all the mechanical pencil sharpener, in a mini-moment custom-made for movie-watching delight — when the curious Luisa walks in to meet the object of her good-fairy magic. Sure, Max is a bit forbidding with his sanctimony and a beard that ages him badly, but she decides he could use more of her help — to start with, in finding a new suit and a shave. So in good 1930s movie fashion, they go shopping together with his newly fat wallet, during which she convinces him to take off his dreary beard (“Never let it be said that a Sporum ever refused the request of a Ginglebusher,” he says as he complies), transforming him into a much more dashing young man. To thank her, he buys her a “genuine foxine” wrap, an item she loves better than any sable coat from Konrad — and she poses with her new “fur” in front of one of those infinite mirrors, secretly doing a little dance. But because Konrad is bound to believe the foxine is far too cheap for the lovely Luisa, her budding romance with Max is heading quickly for the rapids — and for a happy conclusion.
Considering how quickly these studios were pushing out the films during the 30s, we should feel especially blessed when we find one that doesn’t feel utterly dated. But “The Good Fairy” is so much better than that. Between Sturges’ crisp dialogue, Sullavan’s utter watchability, and director Wyler’s choice of great shots (Wyler later married Sullavan, making me wonder whether he was just a little bit in love already with her glowing, unusual face), the film sparkles. Isn’t it the season to rediscover our faith in sparkling old movies?