Wm. Wyler Blogathon: Willy and Maggie Behind the Scenes of The Good Fairy(1935)
When Universal Studios bought the
film rights to the Ferenc
Molnár Broadway hit, The Good Fairy, it
would bring together director William Wyler with his first wife, rising film
star, Margaret Sullavan.
Good Fairy (1935), is a comedy which follows an innocent orphan, “whose
capacity for being naïve is so vast that she disorganizes the lives of three
quite unrelated gentlemen,”as the New York Times reviewer puts it. The
three gentlemen are Reginald Owen, as a
waiter who protects the young fish-out-of-water; Frank Morgan as a businessman
with less than honorable intentions; and Herbert Marshall as an upstanding
attorney to whom the young lady pretends to be married to stave off the
would be Sullavan’s third film, yet already the actress was known for fits and
tantrums usually reserved for stars who had been in the business a bit longer.
One could argue hers was the age-old theater condescension expected from a New
York thespian [like the play, Sullavan was also a Broadway transplant to
Hollywood] but according to Freda Rosenblatt, script girl on the film, who is quoted in Jan
Herman's A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler, Sullavan
simply wanted control on the set of
“She did spiteful things to
get her way," Rosenblatt said. "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. So they couldn't shoot." Another time, she added,
"Maggie got so bored between scenes she went behind one of the sets and
purposely lay downon the dusty floor. The beautiful
white dress she was wearing was a wreck. That stopped everything.”
sorts of antics would cause rifts between the star and her director. Terrible
arguments would take place between Wyler and Sullavan, the strain of which
would show up on the actress’ face onscreen during dailies. Wyler decided to
make peace by asking his star to dinner. She accepted. Like something out of
The Good Fairy itself, misunderstandings and temperament disputes turned into romance.
the movie theme, a nervous Wyler proposed marriage to his head-strong starlet while
watching the dailies of the wedding scene for Fairy.
"[As] he sat next to her in the dark, he smoked a cigarette and watched Sullavan in the picture's closing scene.She looked radiant in a wedding gown. 'Do you think,' he whispered, 'there is any law against a star marrying her director?' Sullavan leaned in and squeezed his arm. 'I'll tell you tomorrow,' she whispered back.
Wyler didn't sleep that night. Needing to talk to someone about his feelings, he
confided in [screenwriter and friend, Preston Sturges]. 'What do you think of my marrying Maggie?' 'Well,
she's not marrying you for your money,' Sturges said, pointing out that
Sullavan had the greater earning power. 'Should I go ahead with this?' Wyler persisted. Sturges was typically cavalier. 'Sure. Why not?'
The night after he proposed, Wyler nervously paced the set as he waited for Sullavan to
arrive. She came in, smiling demurely. 'There is no law against an
actress marrying her director,' she said. 'I looked it up.'
To marry as quickly as possible
and avoid California’s three-day waiting period, the couple eloped to Yuma,
Arizona. The wedding was like something out of a comedy. Herman notes,
“They were married on a Sunday ,November 25, 1934, by Yuma's 'marrying justice' Earl A. Freeman. It
was a perfectly horrible ceremony, Wyler recalled. The justice was dressed in
his bathrobe and slippers. The radio was blaring.The justice's
wife, who 'witnessed' the ceremony, was in the bathroom and couldn't
come out. So they slipped the marriage certificate under the bathroom door for
her to sign.”
Still, the newlyweds were blissfully happy, and returned to finish the film. Released in
January 1935, The Good Fairy was a box office success which would continue Sullavan’s meteoric rise. Over a decade later the story would be remade as a successful vehicle for another young Universal star,
Deanna Durbin, in I’ll Be Yours (1947).
Wyler did not wait for the release of the film before asking to be released
from his contract with Universal. After finishing
shooting Fairy but before post-production, Wyler made the commitment to become a free-lance director. According
to Herman, Wyler had also concluded that since he was married to a major film
star he “had to do better.” And so he
his first film as a free-lance director, Wyler made over twice as much money as
he did with Universal while making Fairy. Bringing home his check with pride,
his giddy mood was halted when his wife displayed her check which was for considerably more. Wyler considered
her emasculating. The flirtatious star would have a fling or two, but became
irritable when her husband followed suit. Sullavan aborted their baby, possibly
for career reasons, without telling Wyler beforehand, which proved to be the
sixteen months of squabbling, much like the tiffs onset during filming, Wyler and Sullavan would divorce,
and would never again work on a film together, making The Good Fairy both the premiere and the swan song of this
couple’s professional relationship.