If not for Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan’s divorce after 60 tempestuous days of marriage, James Stewart may never have become an actor.
It went like this:
While at Princeton, Stewart acted in plays where his main draw was that he could play the accordion. For him, acting was a hobby.
He never thought of it as a career.
After he graduated, he planned to return home to Indiana, Pennsylvania for the summer to work at his father’s hardware store before beginning his graduate studies in architecture.
But before he made it home, writer-producer Josh Logan asked him to come to Cape Cod and be his leading man in the University Player’s summer season.
Stewart turned him down until Logan told him that Fonda and Sullavan were divorcing, and that Sullavan would be his leading lady.
Stewart had long had a crush on Sullavan, but before he’d been able to act on it, she’d married Fonda.
As Logan well knew, there was no way Stewart would turn down another chance with Margaret Sullavan.
Logan wasn’t enamored of Stewart’s talent—he was desperate. He’d designed his whole summer stock series for Fonda and Sullavan, and they were both quitting the company in the wake of their divorce. Logan had lied to Stewart—Sullavan wasn’t coming back to the University Players, she was off to Hollywood.
His opinion of Stewart wasn’t all that different from Bill Grady’s, an MGM talent scout who reported that Stewart was “of no particular interest”1 to MGM after watching one of his Princeton plays.
Stewart accepted Logan’s offer and continued on even when Logan pretended that Sullavan’s return “fell through.” He acted in a play called Carry Nation that eventually graduated to Broadway. There were no rave reviews for Stewart and the play closed after just 17 performances.
But by then it was too late for architecture school and his father’s hardware store.
Jimmy Stewart had caught the acting bug.
Josh Logan would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for co-writing South Pacific with Oscar Hammerstein.
And James Stewart became, well, James Stewart.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
He spent some lean years in New York before making the journey to Hollywood.
He finally caught up with Margaret Sullavan in 1936 when she—the much bigger star at the time—pushed for him to star opposite her in Next Time We Love.
Sullavan, now on the brink of another vicious divorce from second husband William Wyler, had an unusual soft spot for Stewart.
Character actor Myron McCormick said of Sullavan’s attitude toward Stewart: “She was protective, loving, maternal toward him. She wasn’t usually like this with most men. If she wasn’t getting sexually predatory with them she was indifferent or contemptuous.”1
As for Stewart, he nursed his schoolboy crush but never made a move on the still-married Sullavan.
In Next Time We Love, Sullavan and Stewart play married couple Cicely and Christopher Tyler. Christopher is an aspiring foreign correspondent, and Cicely is a college student. The film opens on their parting as she plans to return to school, but instead of leaving, she stays and they impulsively marry.
They’re young and in love but with very modern ideas—both believe that the key to a successful marriage is for the wife to have her own job and not just make her whole life about her husband.
And so they begin their dual careers—he as a cub reporter, she a fledgling actress. They navigate the early pitfalls of marriage but never go to bed angry.
But their marriage—and their progressive ideas—are tested when Christopher gets his first overseas assignment. He assumes Cicely will accompany him, but she decides she doesn’t want to give up the leading role she’s worked so hard for.
And thus begins their life apart.
Christopher winds up on permanent assignment in Russia and he and Cicely spend months, then years apart. Their marriage is conducted in two week sojourns when Chris can get away.
He becomes a stranger to his wife. He never gets to know his son.
And yet Cicely will neither give up her career to join him nor denounce his desire not to give up his. As the years tick by, Cicely waits. There are no affairs, despite the fact that Christopher’s friend Tommy Abbott (Ray Milland) repeatedly asks Cicely to divorce Chris and marry him.
No one would blame her if she did.
The film sets up a fascinating dilemma—how long can their separation go on? What will be the final event that either pulls them apart or brings them back together? Surely they can’t live in this marital limbo indefinitely?
It’s an interesting film, and Stewart comes alive onscreen for the first time as a leading man.
Offscreen, the more experienced Sullavan helped Stewart, showing him how to show emotion on camera. It was his third film, and Sullavan’s tutoring brought a depth to his acting that hadn’t been there before.
Next Time We Love is well worth watching, though in the end it dodges solving the dilemma it sets up by having Christopher develop a terminal illness that he tries to hide from Cicely. She discovers it and stands by him until the end, and they never have to dissolve or resolve their complicated marriage.
The film was a box office success, and fans took note of the chemistry between Sullavan and Stewart. They would go on to make three more films together.
Both Stewart and Next Time We Love’s director Edward H. Griffith gave credit to Sullavan for making him a star.
She’d taken him under her wing when he needed it most, and he never forgot her kindness.
He finally had his feet under him and was ready to soar.
1 Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. 2006.