more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Right Place, Wrong Time: James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan


You know when you have a friend who means the world to you, who means more than any of your other friends, whose interruptions you always welcome and whose calls you always await impatiently, who begins to change in your mind from someone you like being near to someone you can’t be without?  You know that feeling?  So did James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan – the greatest love story that never was.

For years, they’d been good friends.  They knew each other in the early 1930s, when they were both acting around New England and then on Broadway.  After finding himself falling for her like a brick thrown off a building, he asked her on a date – and, true to classic Stewart form, it was the “longest, slowest, shyest but most sincere invitation” (according to Sullavan) she had ever received.  He had been something of a playboy, and she was a bit of a maneater herself, but they were beautifully sweet and gentle with each other.  By the mid-1930s, she was one of Universal’s biggest stars, and she used her influence to bring Stewart to Hollywood as well, making certain that he was given the opportunity to shine.  She helped to polish him herself, coaching him and encouraging him and ensuring that he was featured and photographed and promoted as a star in his own right.  His career, accordingly, skyrocketed.


They collaborated, of course, but only four times: Next Time We Love (1936), The Shopworn Angel (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and The Mortal Storm (1940).  Now, I have no idea about acting.  I don’t know what it’s like to play a love scene in front of a few dozen crew members, while Klieg lights beam down and booms fly this way and that, but I imagine that it was something of a relief for Stewart and Sullavan to be given opportunities to “pretend” that they were in love.  Because they were – just never at the same time.  Sullavan was married in the early ’30s to Henry Fonda, who was one of Stewart’s best friends.  Then she married William Wyler.  Then she married Leland Hayward.  There were brief moments between each marriage when Stewart, by all accounts, would have loved to take his chance.  But he didn’t.  Then it was World War II, and he joined the U.S. Air Force, and came back and married a lovely woman who was not, alas, Margaret Sullavan.  They stayed good friends for the rest of their lives, but her health and stardom declined sharply during the 1940s and 1950s – and then, in 1960, when she was 50 years old, she overdosed on barbiturates.  According to Gloria, Stewart’s wife, “He became something of a recluse for a while…. He lost the spark that had always been there…the spark went out not with the failure of his films but with the death of Margaret Sullavan.”



At least we have their four lovely little films together.  The best one, The Shop Around the Corner (directed by Ernst Lubitsch – who else?), is especially wonderful.  You all probably know it in its reincarnated form, You’ve Got Mail (1998).  Let me give you the red-hot tip, guys: accept no substitutes.  Meg Ryan is no Margaret Sullavan, and Tom Hanks – though he has many good points – is NO Jimmy Stewart.  For one thing, Ryan and Hanks have never (to my knowledge, anyway; I don’t really care enough to find out one way or another) been in love with each other in real life.  Chemistry on screen is 1000% better when it’s also what’s happening in real life, according to me at least.  As Louis B. Mayer said, “Why, they’re red-hot when they get in front of a camera!” As the third in The Shopworn Angel‘s love triangle, Walter Pidgeon, said: “I really felt like the odd-man-out in that one.  It was really all Jimmy and Maggie… It was so obvious he was in love with her.  He came absolutely alive in his scenes with her, playing with a conviction and a sincerity I never knew him to summon away from her.”

Oh, Jimmy and Maggie, you big softies.


P.S. I bet there are some out there – none of you fabulous readers, of course, but some people – who would look at Stewart and Sullavan’s non-love affair and use one of my least favorite neologisms: friendzoned.  Piss off.  That word is inherently bullshit, as it indicates a situation where a man does nice things for a woman hoping only to get his rocks off – and then she has the audacity to see him as a friend and nothing else.  That’s just not what was happening here.  No mind games, no ulterior motives.  Just two people who genuinely cared about each other, all their lives, and never quite found themselves in the same place at once.  It happens.  It can be beautiful, albeit sad.  It is nothing so common and ridiculous as friendzoning, so take that horrible concept back to your unviewed and unappreciated OkCupid profile and leave me and my stars alone.


11 comments on “Right Place, Wrong Time: James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan

  1. Wilma
    June 26, 2013

    Very well written! I agree with everything you say. I remember reading about Sullavan and Stewart in a biography about Jimmy. Sad when people are good for each other but don’t marry.

    • mcwhirk
      June 26, 2013

      It’s horrible when something as dull as life gets in the way of love. At least they made cute movies together.

  2. karen
    May 13, 2014

    Can’t help but believe that if they had gotten together ,it would’ve lasted a long time. They sounded like soulmates.

  3. Susan
    August 8, 2014

    You got it ALL right!! Thank you for a wonderful piece.

  4. unbe
    September 29, 2014

    I’ve never seen You’ve Got Mail but I’ve seen In the Good Old Summertime (1949), which I very much enjoy and consider a worthy “substitute”!

  5. Pingback: The Good Fairy: My Favorite Classic Movie | Bunnybun's Classic Movie Blog

  6. Maryann Schenkel
    December 20, 2015

    In the Good Old Summer Time was the remake of the Shop Around the Corner movie according to TMC and other material I have read on it.

  7. Luisa
    March 16, 2017

    I’ve loved everything about this article :))

  8. Cheryl Crow
    November 8, 2017

    I, too, love your article. Gives me new insight as I sit here enjoying movie after movie on a TMC Jimmy Stewart marathon! Thank you.

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This entry was posted on February 13, 2013 by and tagged , , , .
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