Though not as well remembered as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart’s second film, The Shopworn Angel, is their best collaboration.
James Stewart had a crush on Margaret Sullavan that never went anywhere but never faded away. For her part, Sullavan grew to love Stewart, but only as a friend. Throughout her life she would collect four husbands and many lovers, but Stewart was never among them.
I think they both liked it that way. Sullavan enjoyed her perch atop a pedestal and since they never had a true relationship—with all its messiness, complications, and socks on the floor—he could forever worship her from afar.
The Shopworn Angel recreates this dynamic onscreen.
America is on the cusp of entering World War I.
Bill Pettigrew (Stewart) is a wide-eyed soldier from Texas. He’s stationed in New York, waiting to be deployed to France when jaded Broadway star Daisy Heath (Sullavan) nearly runs him down. As an apology, she gives him in a ride in her limousine. When his fellow soldiers see him with her, Bill lies and tells them that she’s “his girl” and that they grew up together in Texas.
The men don’t believe that shy Bill could land such a celebrity, but when they approach Daisy outside the theater one night to bust him, she surprises them (and Bill) by going along with his story.
Thus begins a chaste romance between the two. Bill is head over heels, and the hard-bitten Daisy begins to see herself through his eyes.
She comes from a world of late nights, early morning hangovers, and friends who would walk over your dead body to reach the next rung on the show business ladder.
She doesn’t quite know what to do with Bill, who takes her out for ice cream sundaes and roller coaster rides. He’s afraid of what he’ll find in war-torn France, but eager to do his duty for his country.
Unbeknownst to Bill, Daisy has long been in a relationship with her manager, Sam Bailey (Walter Pidgeon). They’re a perfect pair on paper—both sophisticated, cynical, and world-weary. At first, Sam is amused by her trifling with Bill, but then jealousy creeps in as he sees Daisy falling in love.
So far, this is standard romantic comedy stuff. But The Shopworn Angel takes a melodramatic turn when Bill’s number is called and he’s to report to the base and shove off for France.
He wants to marry Daisy before he goes.
Faced with this prospect, Daisy realizes that she is not truly in love with Bill. They’ve had a wonderful dalliance, he’s made her better, but she knows they would never work long term. She belongs with Sam.
And yet she knows that Bill is part of the first group of soldiers sent to France, and there’s a good chance that he’ll be killed on the front lines.
What harm would it do if she gave Bill something to live for?
At first, Sam is apoplectic at the idea and raises the obvious question—what if he returns?
The cynical side of Daisy retorts that she can always divorce him later.
In the end, Sam agrees, because even he can see that Bill desperately needs something to cling to.
This all sounds like they’re making a fool of Bill, but Daisy marries him out of genuine affection and gratitude to him for waking her up to life again.
She loves him—she just doesn’t love him.
It’s a rather sophisticated drama, and as Bill goes off to war, the audience is conflicted. They know that Daisy is right—she and Bill would never work long term, and yet surely this film has to have a happy ending.
It’s a bittersweet one.
Bill writes to her religiously throughout his time in France. She’s made him happy while at war, just as she planned.
The film ends with one final letter, informing Daisy that she’s become a widow. Both she and Sam are devastated by the loss of this good man.
Who would Daisy have chosen if Bill returned?
We, and she, will never know.
1 Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. 2006.