The Good Fairy (1935) - a funny and endearing Preston Sturges film

The Good Fairy (1935) is chock full of warm performances and relentlessly clever lines. You haven't finished laughing when a tear-jerking scene climbs up from the ground with a sucker punch.

You're floored.
The good usherette and a her "magic" wand ; fairytale imagery is laid on thick in this film.
Based on a Ferenc Molnár play, Fairy follows innocent Luisa Ginglebuscher (Margaret Sullavan) who finds that helping people (i.e. being a "good fairy") is complicated beyond the orphanage. After Mr. Konrad (Frank Morgan) hires Luisa to be an usherette at his movie theater, she discovers that Konrad wishes his newest employee to be his mistress. To fend off his advances, Luisa pretends to be married  to Dr. Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), an impoverished attorney whose name she randomly picks out of the telephone directory. Undaunted, Konrad wishes to supply the would-be kept woman with presents by giving her husband a profitable career.

Mistaken identities follow and hilarity ensues, as only  Preston Sturges can write them. Morgan is a hoot as a lech. I had to pause the movie to laugh after he intoned, during what passes as foreplay, “I‘ll be the mountain lion, and you‘ll be the little lamb. You‘re eating grass and I‘m… hungry too.” There's plenty of animal imagery in this film, as befits a fable. Konrad is a predatory lion, Luisa a lamb, and there's big todo about Sporum's goat-like beard.

Sporum  is an attorney of the highest integrity  who admits his faults, but perseveres in his ethics knowing he's right. Luisa has been brought up in the same school of thought, but she's a little less strident. The movie characterizes both of these adults as children, not deridingly so, but as an indulgent parent might. The script takes great pains to show Sporum becoming excited over finally being able to afford a pencil sharpener with his new lucrative job under Konrad. He's as giddy as a child getting a train or bike for his birthday.

I wondered why the film would spend so much time gently poking fun at its two leads' earnestness. It's just to set up what's at stake when at last both will have to decide whether their moral fortitude is strong enough to weather myriad temptations. Nice.

Yours truly was struck by the care with which the complex moral issues were handled. Luisa finds herself in a web of lies of her own making, and ultimately must choose between sacrificing her virtue and keeping her word. At this juncture, the director, William Wyler, lays into the soft focus, as if the camera is tearing up along with Luisa. In one particular scene, Wyler allows the camera to remain still during a fairly long close up of the protagonist as tears threaten to trickle down her innocent face. No cuts, just Ms. Sullavan's face. The actress is allowed to perform with minimal aid, which is wonderful.

I was a bit choked up myself, which is very rare when watching a film that doesn't include prison, war, death or famine. I like to think of myself as one who cannot be manipulated by sap. But, because this intimate little morality film achieved the gargantuan feat of extracting tears out of me, it's now a new favorite. (Plus it's entertaining.)

Norbert Brodine's cinematography in The Good Fairy is one for the history books. There's a receding mirror shot which invites comparison with Orson Welles' famous hall of mirrors scene in Citizen Kane. Still, this one doesn't come crashing near the end of a depressing story, but at the apex of Luisa's joy. She's made Spurom's life less burdensome, and now she's happily trying on clothes in a department store.

At first glance it seems this shot is wasted on a film that would be perfectly fine without such extravagance. That might still be the case, but the scene nags me. What is the story trying to tell us with these mirrors? That there are thousands of Luisas out there having to make the same choices? Or is this simply a neat little trick of cinematic virtuosity that is to be appreciated in and of itself?


  • Long before the Sullavan film, Sturges had written a play out of the Molnár book called Make  A Wish.
  • Fairy was remade in the 1940s as a Deanna Durbin vehicle, I'll Be Yours. It costars Adolphe Menjou as a very creepy lecher and Tom Drake as the attorney. Drake is one of few leading men in Hollywood to costar with both Durbin and Judy Garland.
  • Speaking of Garland, the star of The Wizard of Oz (1939), here's some eerie foreshadowing for your yellow brick road scrapbooks. In The Good Fairy, Frank Morgan as Konrad is at his foreplay routine again, and wants to pretend to be a wizard who will grant a little girl's wishes. Morgan, of course, would later play the title character in Oz. 

  •                     Deanna Durbin and Frederic March in "The Good Fairy"

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