There are many stars who slide under the 'recognition' radar. Actress Margaret Sullavan is definitely among the finest of that long list. Her lack of public attention may be because her overall film career was short-lived; only lasting sixteen films. It also one that included an Oscar nomination and a pairing with an eventual All-American icon.
When Sullavan arrived in Hollywood at 24 years old, her dramatic talent translated well from stage to screen.The soft-spoken newcomer only had several films under her belt when an Oscar nomination for Best Actress came her way for "Three Comrades" (1938). The war film is a love story centered around a trio of World War I German soldiers and a young woman who is dying of tuberculosis. Sullavan has an ethereal image on-screen that is most underrated. One cannot avoid being consumed by her unassuming yet strong emotionality as Patricia Hallmans. The going was tough that year at the Academy Awards. Sullavan was up against Norma Shearer, Wendy Hiller, Fay Bainter, and Bette Davis, who ultimately walked away with the prized statuette for "Jezebel" (1938).
Like Bette Davis, Margaret Sullavan was straightforward about her movie career. One decision in particular led to one of Hollywood's most endearing partnerships. Two years earlier, when "Next Time We Love" (1936) was set to film, Universal Studios had difficulty finding a star to play opposite Sullavan. The five-foot-two actress knew of an old college friend she knew would be perfect; that friend was James Stewart, who was contracted to rival studio MGM. Sullavan was known to have such a bad temper, her wrath would make MGM Mogul Louis B. Mayer shake in his boots. Universal execs feared Sullavan too and managed to snatch up Stewart. At that time, Stewart had only appeared in two films and hadn't had much of an on-screen presence. Sullavan helped Stewart by coaching him and scaling down his awkward mannerisms. Following "Next Time We Love," Sullavan and Stewart starred in four films together, including the very popular "The Shop Around The Corner" (1938). The two pals had such great on-screen chemistry and were so close off-screen, unconfirmed rumors surfaced that they had an affair. However the case may be, Louis B. Mayer once remarked, "Why, they're red-hot when they get in front of a camera...I don't know what the hell it is, but it sure jumps off the screen."
Sullavan was not only one of Tinseltown's most underrated stars, but her tumultuous off-screen life may just rank up there with legends like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. Sullavan didn't have much luck in the romance department; she married four times. Most of her partnerships only lasted two months to a few years. The Broadway star not only suffered from severe bouts of depression, but also a hearing defect, which with age, grew to hearing loss. One New York Post writer theorized that perhaps Sullavan never heard the roaring applause she received for her strong performances.
After building a small but respectable list of fragile but fearless roles, Sullavan bid farewell to Hollywood to take care of her family and returned to theater. In the midst of a stage comeback, Sullavan was found dead in her hotel room. She overdosed on barbiturates, and some speculated her death was a suicide. It was later ruled as accidental by a county coroner. She was only 51 years old.