Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Shopworn Angel (1938)

Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, MGM in the late 1930s, produced by Joe Mankiewicz – you could be forgiven if you were to think that “The Shopworn Angel”’s director was Frank Borzage. It even has his themes of sacrifice and redemption through a spiritual love. Only it isn’t. The name on the credits is that of H.C. Potter, better known for “Mr Blandings builds his Dream House”.

At the beginning the film looks like it’s going to unfold like a very simple love triangle from the 1930s. Sullavan and Walter Pidgeon are romantically attached until she meets a young naïve soldier (Stewart). Trying desperately to impress his friends he tells them she is his girlfriend and out of sympathy she plays the game. What unfolds is a truly unusually love triangle – something that reminded me of “The Wings of Dove” (the film, as I never read the book).

I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s ending, and in retrospect I think it far more realistic than I would expect for the period. Frankly, I think had Borzage directed it he wouldn’t have made it the same. Another happy surprise was Walter Pidgeon’s performance. I am used to see him as either the flat second banana (e.g. “Too Hot to Handle”) or as Greer Garson’s husband in whatever thing MGM thought would sell tickets (“Mrs Miniver”, “Madame Curie”, etc., etc., etc.) and this happily falls in neither category. Margaret Sullavan and Hattie McDaniel (as her maid, as you might have guessed) are very good, although I prefer Sullavan in Borzage's hands, and James Stewart looks as naïve as only he can.

Despite all this the film doesn’t quite make it. I can’t exactly put my finger into it, but it lacks something – if I had to guess I’d say is Stewart’s saccharine naivety that doesn’t quite do it for me, it never did.

PS - I am left wondering if the artist who made the poster had ever seen a clear photo of Margaret Sullavan.

PPS - added a second and much better poster.


Evangeline Holland said...

The reason Margaret Sullavan's face looks so odd is because Jean Harlow was supposed to star in this film! Her unexpected death obviously forced the art department to morph Harlow's features into Sullavan's. :/

How do you think Jean would have done in this film, had she lived?

Miguel said...

That certainly explains it.

Can't think of Harlow in the part though, Sullavan is a much better choice - and a better actress.