A naive girl just out of a cloistered orphanage finds that being a 'good fairy' to strangers makes life awfully complicated.A naive girl just out of a cloistered orphanage finds that being a 'good fairy' to strangers makes life awfully complicated.A naive girl just out of a cloistered orphanage finds that being a 'good fairy' to strangers makes life awfully complicated.
Molnár's play tells the story of an amoral young woman named Lu, a theater "usherette" loved by a handsome but poor waiter. Lu would prefer to get ahead in the world by taking advantage of her rich (and married) admirer Konrad. Lu considers sleeping with Konrad, but because she finds him unattractive puts him off by claiming that she's already married, to a lawyer. When Konrad insists on helping her husband professionally -- in hopes of bedding Lu as a reward -- she picks a name out of the phone book at random: Max Sporum. From there things get complicated, but it's interesting to note that in Molnár's play the sexually sophisticated Lu acts only as matchmaker (thus, "good fairy") to the three men in her life, successfully pairing off each one with another woman while remaining single herself. Sturges retained this basic framework but made his Luisa (Margaret Sullavan) far more innocent: she's fresh from an orphan asylum, and totally unschooled in the ways of the world, particularly where men are concerned. In Sturges' version Detlaff the waiter (Reginald Owen) is an older man who is protective of Luisa in a fatherly way but not romantically interested, while the rich middle-aged businessman Konrad (Frank Morgan) initially seems to be a horny roué, but turns out to be an old softy. And where Molnár's Max Sporum was a homely man already involved with his secretary, the lawyer in this film is played by debonair Herbert Marshall, the secretary has been eliminated, and eventual romance between Luisa and Max is assured.
How much of this plotting was imposed on Sturges by the demands of the censors is irrelevant, ultimately, because he succeeded in imposing his own raffish sensibility onto the material despite the unlikely elements, such as Luisa's almost otherworldly innocence and the entirely benevolent interest shown in her by all of these older men. The Hays Office was never much of an impediment to Sturges, anyhow; besides, he slipped a couple of surprisingly risqué lines past the censors here, as he would elsewhere. The plot of this movie depends heavily on Luisa's childlike qualities, and probably wouldn't work nearly as well if she were more sophisticated. If The Good Fairy had been made a few years earlier in the "Pre-Code" era it surely would have been spicier, but might have lost something, too. As it stands, the film strikes just the right balance between sauciness and sweetness, without too much of either element.
Sturges' script is brought to life on screen by a cast of exceptional actors. Margaret Sullavan is quite perfect as Luisa, obviously smart but also stunted by her upbringing. Sullavan conveys the character's innocence without coming off as an idiot, which is no easy trick. Frank Morgan is delightful as Konrad, the wealthy businessman whose interest in Luisa sets the story in motion and changes everyone's life. (Coincidentally, Morgan, who is best remembered for his performance in the title role as The Wizard of Oz a few years later, compares himself to a wizard at one point in a conversation with Luisa.) Herbert Marshall gives perhaps the best comic performance of his career in the unlikely role of impoverished lawyer Max Sporum, a man so delighted by his improved status in life that he waxes eloquent on the subject of a new pencil sharpener. Marshall is a charming actor who deserves to be better remembered; he had one of the best voices of his day, along with Ronald Colman and George Sanders. Reginald Owen is at something of a disadvantage, as his character of Detlaff is rather one-dimensional, but he gives it all he's got and grows on you by the end. The supporting cast is full of the colorful players who used to populate these movies in Hollywood's Golden Age (Alan Hale, Beulah Bondi, Eric Blore, etc.) and who make their limited screen time count.
I've seen The Good Fairy three times now, and enjoy it more with each viewing. I'm still catching funny lines that flew past while I was laughing at something else, and how often can you say that about any comedy? Oh, and don't miss the comic high point, a movie-within-a- movie parody that's as funny as anything Sturges ever wrote.
- May 29, 2005