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.

The 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 businessman’s advances.

Fairy 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 Fairy.
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 down on the dusty floor. The beautiful white dress she was wearing was a wreck. That stopped everything.
These 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.

Continuing 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).

But 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 did. 

In 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 last straw.

After 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.


This post is a part of the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector. For more information about the blogathon and to view other entries, visit TheMovieProjector.blogspot.com .


  1. Thanks for a nice behind the scenes look at this film and Wyler's relationship with Sullavan. Yesterday, I read how Bette Davis made the set so difficult for Wyler on "The Little Foxes." Boy, poor Willie sure paid for his good times, didn't he?

  2. Java, - Not familiar with the film, so I will have to keep it in mind to check. Neither Wyler nor Sullivan sound like they were easy to work with. No wonder the marriage did not last too long. Nice look at behind the scenes and the life of Willie Wyler.

  3. Java,
    I haven't seen this film either! No wonder Wyler wanted out of his contract after this one.

    I don't think I'll be running out to find this film any time soon. But your behind the scenes info was much more interesting than what went on, on screen.

    Nicely done as always, Java.

  4. Goodness, the Wyler-Sullavan romance sounds like the plot of a Preston Sturges film itself! (especially that bit about the witness in the bathroom...) I had heard that Maggie Sullavan was tempestuous, but I had no idea the degree (she seems quite the opposite of her character in 'The Good Fairy'). Still, even though the marriage didn't last, both ex-partners did go on to great things in cinema. Enjoyed your post!

  5. That off-screen relationship has enough comedy and drama to make it to the screen!

  6. Java, a nice look behind the scenes at Wyler and his mercurial star. I saw this on TCM a few years ago and was captivated by it. She would be reteamed a few years later with costar Frank Morgan in Lubitsch's "The Shop Around the Corner," which has my own favorite performances by both Sullavan and Morgan.

    "The Good Fairy" is not for everyone, but I found it charming, and it created in me a fascination with Margaret Sullavan. She was a tremendously talented actress who might have been a virago on the set, but apparently captivated all the men who were close to her. Her onscreen quality is absolutely unique. In the 1930s her screen persona was considered as singular as Katharine Hepburn's (who was often her rival for parts), but as much as I like Hepburn, I find Sullavan less mannered and brittle. She played the lead in "Stage Door" on Broadway and would have done the movie if she hadn't gotten pregnant.

    The daughter she had, Brooke Hayward, has written a memoir of her family which contains what is essentially a compact biography of her mother. It's called "Haywire" and is sure to be of interest to anyone curious about Sullavan. Like a lot of actresses who had the reputation of being difficult (Monroe and Kim Novak come to mind), I suspect she might have had undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

  7. I have to say, I had the best time reading this! It was delightful to hear about a film (one which I'm unfamiliar) from the behind the scenes angle - a story which frankly sounds more interesting than the film itself. Too bad reality (radio)shows didn't exist then. :-)

  8. Really interesting post! Thanks for providing all this juicy behind-the-scenes info!

  9. Why would anyone want to marry a woman who was so obviously immature, not to mention unprofessional? Interesting read, Java.

  10. I very much enjoyed reading this post--as FlickChick indicated her comment above, between Sullavan and Bette Davis, I'm not sure who made Wyler's life more miserable (both on AND off the set), but he certainly had a way of attracting ... let's call them "difficult" women. :)

  11. It was interesting to read this behind-the-scenes info, Java! I must say, however many difficulties Sullavan and Wyler had off-camera, though, for me the resulting film is excellent and well worth watching - Sullavan is wonderful in the lead role and I also love all the three male leads in this, especially Frank Morgan.

  12. Love this. That off-screen courtship reads like a Preston Sturges script. Great job, JJ.

  13. I very much enjoyed the back stage look at this short-lived but textbook example of director and star bonding during a mutual project. Nice to know Sturges was so cavalier. Ha! Sullavan gave one of her finest performances in THE GOOD FAIRY, a quality early Wyler, that admittedly will always be remembered by many as the film that featured a director taking out a star for dinner to improve her appearance and to calm things down, only to be married two weeks later.

  14. Fascinating background on a Wyler film I've never seen and knew little about. Thanks for picking this one!

  15. Great post. I saw this film many years ago when I was on a Preston Sturges kick, yet I remember so little of it so I will need to revisit. However, the backstory sounds more fun than the film! LOL

  16. Nice to get a behind-the-scenes look at this film. It really does sound like its own movie. Sullavan is an actress I don't want much but she really does have a passionate fanbase. Here's a great article about her.

  17. Nice post, Java, about an utterly charming picture and the behind-the-scenes whirlwind courtship and marriage (however brief) of director and star. Here's an amusing related anecdote which I read somewhere but, alas, can't remember where:

    Years later, Margaret Sullavan met with Columbia's Harry Cohn in his office to discuss doing a picture with him. They couldn't agree on terms, so Sullavan got up to leave, at which point Cohn said to her, "By the way, Willy Wyler tells me you're really great in the sack."

    She looked down at him scornfully. "You're a liar. Willy's too much of a gentleman ever to say something like that to a man like you." She strode to the door and turned back to Cohn with her hand on the knob. "But I am," she said, and stalked out.

  18. Java, I haven't seen "The Good Fairy" yet, but soon. Your interesting post reminded me of a bit more backstory on the film. In reading much background on William Wyler lately I learned that he and writer/director Preston Sturges were good friends and had worked together on "The Good Fairy" - Sturges authored the script with the starring role tailored to Margaret Sullavan. As it turned out, the Wyler/Sullavan marriage only lasted 2 years but Wyler and Sturges were friends for 20+ years.

    Wyler and Sullavan's romance and marriage seem to have been nothing if not tempestuous. I've read that one reason he wasn't interested in getting any more involved with Bette Davis than he did was that her volatile personality and diva temperament were too reminiscent of his ex-wife.

  19. I greatly enjoyed your post and the fascinating information you provided. I'm a big Margaret Sullvan fan -- I've only seen The Good Fairy once, but I've been meaning to give it a re-watch. I didn't realize that Margaret Sullvan was such a firecracker!

  20. Thanks everyone for the additional back story, anecdotes and recommendations. I thoroughly appreciate it!

    - Java

  21. Thanks for this, Java. Margaret Sullavan always makes me sad. What a terrible life she had.

  22. I once read this biography of William Wyler from the 1990s in which a neighbor of the couple had overheard an argument between them. Minutes later, this neighbor spotted Wyler stepping outside of the house with bruises on his face. Sullavan stepped outside a minute or two later, without a scratch. I don't know if this is true or not, but the name of the biographer is Jan Herman.


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"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email: java-rush@hotmail.com


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