The Good Fairy
Director: William Wyler. Cast: Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen, Beulah Bondi, Alan Hale, Eric Blore, June Clayworth, Gavin Gordon, Luis Alberni, Cesar Romero. Screenplay: Preston Sturges (based on the play by Ferenc Molnár, translated by Jane Hinton).
I wrote this review in conjunction with the William Wyler Blog-a-Thon hosted by my friend Goatdog, whose encyclopedic knowledge and tremendous dedication to the movies, especially those of classic Hollywood, are matched only by his witty perceptions and healthy sense of humor about them. This review is the most obvious but hardly the only way he has inspired this website.

Photo © 1935 Universal Pictures
Who could watch The Good Fairy except through the prism of William Wyler's brilliant career to follow? Only a year after The Good Fairy, Wyler's Dodsworth and These Three, plus his relief-pitching on Howard Hawks' Come and Get It, would vault him straight to the top rank of Hollywood directors; by the end of the decade, with Dead End and Wuthering Heights to his credit and his famous collaborations with Bette Davis reaching their peaks in The Letter and The Little Foxes, Wyler was already an institution, with three Best Director Oscars in his future. (He's still the all-time nomination champ in that category, with twelve, handily trumping the eight collected by Billy Wilder). I have seen 16 of the 24 feature films that Wyler made through the major arc of his career, from that famous troika of 1936 through his swan song, The Liberation of L.B. Jones, in 1970. These films don't suggest to me any firm principle of style or auteurist signature, but Wyler does strike me as making bolder gambits in form and technique—pronouncedly deep-focus cinematography in The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives, the banishment of music from Detective Story, the stark chiaroscuro of The Heiress, the lavishly wide frame of Ben-Hur—than did his peer-group of "prestige" directors, including Wilder, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, Elia Kazan, or George Stevens. This stylistic flexibility seems largely to arise from Wyler's responsiveness to the different needs and resources of his actors. Though I wouldn't make equal claims for all of these films or performances, he found a new severity in Olivia de Havilland by pushing the camera so close to her face in The Heiress; he sought the innate melancholy in Audrey Hepburn's fragility by framing her in long shot amid nearly overwhelming backgrounds in Roman Holiday; he honored the consummate skill of his Dodsworth actors by shooting many scenes from full-body theatrical sightlines, even though he never lights, thinks, or edits like a theater director; and, speaking of theater, he cultivated a smart middle distance around Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl that maintained Fanny Brice perpetually on the verge of breaking into a new number without alienating us from the lovely idiosyncrasies of the actress' face and personality.

I'm newly entertaining these thoughts about Wyler after seeing The Good Fairy, even though this strange, uncertain film doesn't augur or embody Wyler's subsequent trademarks so much as it calls them into relief through their very absence, or, more generously, through the film's restive striking about for a proper angle (sometimes literally) on its story and its cast. Wyler's then-wife, Margaret Sullavan, 24 years old during filming, stars as Hungarian orphan Luisa Ginglebusher, who delights her much younger fellow wards with energetically embellished fairy tales until a cinema owner (Alan Hale) selects her to be an usherette at his theater. She weeps as she watches her first movie, a romantic melodrama that offers poor preparation for the life she will actually find outside the orphanage; from the moment she exits the cinema, Luisa is either accosted by sexually eager men or, in two cases, herself accosts other men, first a fussbudget waiter named Detlaff (Reginald Owen) and then the effete and unsuspecting Dr. Sporum (Herbert Marshall), forcing them to play the role of her husband. In the waiter's case, she enlists him as an anxious, momentary alibi to avoid a proposition by a stage-door lothario (a cameo by Cesar Romero). This anecdotal event expands in the second narrative into a full-blown and dark-toned farce, implicating the doctor more deeply and eccentrically in Luisa's life. Pressed for the name of a husband she doesn't have by an even more insistent and salaciously-minded suitor named Konrad (Frank Morgan), Luisa plucks the doctor's name at random from a phone book, instigating a chain of events whereby Konrad showers money and a spurious professional promotion on Dr. Sporum as a way of getting closer to Luisa—an indecent proposal of an especially roundabout kind.

The Molnár play isn't bad material, though the simultaneously breathless and listless adaptation sometimes suggests that it is. Despite the ornate improbabilities, coincidences, and hairpin reversals of the narrative, all of which demand very careful pacing and an agility of tone, the piece is clearly a wry and impressively ominous version of a "fractured fairy tale," with Luisa hopping into the huge world, flailing to avoid an imaginary monster (the Romero character) and then very nearly captured by a real one (Morgan). She ends the script with a tortuous recap of her exploits by which Molnár scrutinizes the idealistic investments we place on new acquaintances and virgin experiences, and the narratives by which we rationalize even our wildest choices, both before and after the fact. Along the way, not just people but places (the orphanage, the cinema, a high-society party, a barbershop, a department store) and objects (ladders, beards, fox stoles, black eyes) take on a kind of totemic significance through which a carefully exaggerated stage production could penetrate the strangely subconscious logic of the piece. Further adding to the material's degree of difficulty is how Molnár insists on binding these gestalt figures to a simultaneous and very conscious critique of social ritual. Luisa's folkloric self-conception as the benevolent president of a fairy tale is braided together with her incessant and erratic compulsions toward marriage, which The Good Fairy understands as both a sentimental impulse and a self-protective mandate for any single, parentless girl. Dr. Sporum's professional ambitions and dissatisfactions, Detlaff's working-class perspective on upper-class prurience, and Konrad's upper-bourgeois impulse to trade money and commodities for sex are also smartly contextualized dynamics within the script's examination of rivalry and friction among the social classes, even as they nestle into place within the more allegorical landscape of maidens, villains, guardians, and unwitting princes.

Unfortunately, most of this dramatic complexity is dulled or obscured by Wyler's direction, which isn't uninteresting, but which invests too heavily in cinematic experiments with form and in the established personas of his stars to find its way into the deeply theatrical, symbolist leanings of the piece. Like Margaret Sullavan's face in the final image, the movie shrouds itself in layers of gauze that romanticize the material at the price of revealing it, and which require its allegiance to established generic protocols instead of to its own internal life—much as Luisa's climactic marriage, against all her expectations and probably without her awareness, seems to draw her into a status quo instead of freeing her into the magical life she desires for herself. Precisely twice, Wyler devises proper and properly strange stylistic correlatives for Molnár's loopy and mercurial story. First, the film-within-a-film sequence is a subtle marvel, folding separate layers of reality and implication within the mise-en-scène (and more poignantly than does the later, flashy shot where Luisa dons an imitation fox fur before an endless mise-en-abíme of mirrors). Wyler's three referents in this sequence are Luisa's face, a tremulous field of pathos; the cavernous and frankly unwelcoming cinema, whose owner coaches his usherettes through rigid, almost fascistic practice routines; and the shimmering movie-screen, which we, like Luisa, experience in Purple Rose of Cairo fashion as a bright puncture in a dark space and as a window into the world of pure emotion that her mundane surroundings otherwise suppress. At the same time, and shrewdly in sync with Molnár's critique of idealism, Wyler makes the film that Luisa watches as absurd as it is affecting. June Clayworth is earnest and poignant as a lover on the brink of rejection, while Gavin Gordon gives a purposefully and hilariously maladroit performance as the man who spurns her, endlessly repeating the single word, "GO!" Luisa's absorption in this spectacle—she forgets all about her usherette duties, and cries a typical Margaret Sullavan tear as she watches—exposes her dangerous susceptibility as well as her appealing lack of cynicism, allowing the audience to prognosticate and then to experience her later adventures from a mature and interesting diversity of viewpoints.

Unfortunately, Frank Morgan all but wrecks the picture upon his first entrance as Konrad, giving the same sputtering and flamboyantly buffoonish performance that he almost always does. Wyler, whether out of his own affection for Morgan's very popular schtick or that of the producers, indulges Morgan at every imaginable cost to the dank contours of the character and the emotional cruxes of the story. Having nimbly but narrowly survived its first major tonal shift from the gentle light comedy of the orphanage sequence (with a funny and restrained near-cameo by Beulah Bondi as its director) to the metaphysical ambiguities and self-reflexity of the cinema scenes, and then a second swerve back into situational comedy as Sullavan attends a society ball without any grasp of what society is, The Good Fairy shipwrecks for at least twenty minutes as it becomes a one-man show. Sullavan almost visibly loses all confidence in who she's playing and how she's doing it while Morgan carries on his self-enclosed routine; what is superficially amusing if mildly irritating in simpler projects is a catastrophe within a script that requires the sort of tonal precision that The Good Fairy does. Wyler's direction retrenches almost as fully as Sullavan's performance does, and standard-issue two-shots and proscenium views abound. Indeed, after Morgan's intrusion, the movie must virtually restart itself when Luisa and the script wriggle themselves away from Konrad, with some charming assists from Detlaff. Here, Wyler achieves his second most inspired interlude as Luisa arrives to meet her unsuspecting and involuntary fiancé, Dr. Sporum. The camera lingers in a pregnant pause as Luisa arrives to his rooms, while movers exchange his old furniture for a newer, more expensive suite of possessions: we are clearly on the brink of another fairytale "realm," itself in the midst of an uncanny transformation. For reasons I won't go into, Dr. Sporum briefly mistakes Luisa for an errand-girl from a stationer's shop, and as the two of them sit down to sharpen some pencils together, the suddenness and intensity of their privacy sparks with the oddness of their activity (phallic symbolism undercut by nerdy fetishization). To allow a creative anachronism, the scene is virtually a prototype for Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader's erotic communions over typos and red Sharpies in Secretary. The whole interlude is as unusual on the surface as it is lucid in sublimated desire.

Soon enough, though, The Good Fairy reverts to stylistic hesitation, competing temperaments, and euphemistic avoidance of the predation, near-prostitution, and compulsive fixation that ground the characters' relations to each other and their perceptions of each other. Less and less often does Wyler allow himself the subtle camera movements and carefully timed edits that amplified emotion while resisting overindulgence in early scenes, like the gentle push-in on Margaret Sullavan as her fellow orphans celebrate her rescue—a moment that was briskly held in check by a dissolve into her more polished, but less relaxed persona as an aspiring city girl, amidst being drilled by Bondi on the finer points of The Way We Live Now. Frankly, whatever their rapport offscreen, Sullavan's lacy fragility as an actress doesn't seem to ignite Wyler's enthusiasm or inspire his formal imagination in the same way that tougher, more intellectual types like Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor did in Dodsworth or Bette Davis did in everything they made together. Wyler even brought some charge to the perpetually dull Merle Oberon by making her smart, ambitious, and increasingly disillusioned in These Three. Sullavan, however, seems most comfortable when she's yearning, weeping, or thinking about weeping, attitudes that Wyler can't relate to or expand upon the way Frank Borzage and Ernst Lubitsch did when they worked with her. As the story plays itself out in close-ups, two-shots, and trios, Sullavan most often looks like she's thinking of ways to make her character work, Marshall looks like he's thinking about Molnár and Great Dramatic Literature, and Morgan looks like he's thinking about the Scotch he enjoyed before the shot began, or the one he'll enjoy after. Everyone seems happy when the script—an early screenplay credit for none other than Preston Sturges—gives them a plummy witticism or tasty one-liner to sell, but Sturges' appetite for charming complication and fizzy personality isn't necessarily closer to Molnár than Wyler's nascent classicism is. Besides which, when Luisa says something prototypically Preston-ish like "You look just the way Ginglebusher sounds!" you can't help wishing that she were brought to life by Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur, someone who would have more fun with Luisa's predicaments or else bring more bite to her own aggressive habits. Sidney Franklin's The Guardsman, filmed as a vehicle for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in 1931, was not necessarily more definitive as an entrée into Molnár than The Good Fairy is, but that film works much better and less strenuously as a tasty, tangy romp unto itself, mostly because Franklin and his cast are more simpatico with each other and with the special demands of stagy stylization than Wyler, Sturges, or their actors are.

Thankfully, even when the performances and the direction don't fully capitalize on them, The Good Fairy keeps yielding plot twists and new avenues of self-interpretation as it continues, plus we get to witness Reginald Owen deliver a hugely satisfying and remarkably persuasive punch to Frank Morgan's noggin in the final act. The extreme frugality of the musical score allows for a proper emphasis on voice and image, and it at least shows that The Good Fairy's creators understood that the piece was probably too complex for the emotionally prescriptive scores of the period. Wyler fans won't be uninterested, even if they are a tad disappointed; devotés of Sullavan or Sturges or Molnár will probably experience a similar reaction, and at least no one can quibble with the glistening print quality of the Kino DVD. I can't say The Good Fairy was the movie I wanted it to be, and I wish it didn't call so much attention to the gap between the sophistication and aspirations of the source text and its indecisive, erratic presentation within the film. Still, early forays by future phenoms are rewarding objects of study, not just for what they reveal by contrast to later works but because they so often evince the symptoms and swings of a talent or a style or a way of imagining movies as they wrestle themselves into shape—processes that more fully coherent and confident films cannot, by definition, betray. Wyler is remembered and rightly treasured for other films, but his strengths and his limits are fruitfully recontextualized by this one; if one could tour a director's portfolio the way we peruse a gallery show, The Good Fairy would fail, I think, to win anyone's vote for "Best in Show," but you would certainly linger in front of it, weighing it, reading into and out of it, satisfied by its glints of inspiration if not its final execution. Grade: C+

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