In this Budapest orphanage for girls, Luisa Ginglebuscher (Margaret Sullavan) is something of a dreamer, always keen to invent fairy stories for the younger girls, even at the cost of being careful elsewhere, as today when she manages to knock over a shelf full of crockery after getting too enthusiastic in her storytelling. Just at that moment, the head of the establishment (Beulah Bondi) enters the kitchen with a local businessman (Alan Hale) who is keen to recruit a girl to pose as an usherette in his cinema, and as Luisa is more or less a woman now, the head agrees to let her go and find her place in the world. But she marks well the idea that she should perform good deeds…
The Good Fairy was an early hit for both Sullavan and her director William Wyler, one that set them both on the path to greater success and they married as well, Wyler having fallen for his star despite her volcanic temperament quite at odds with the sweet natured character she was essaying here. Unsurprisingly, the marriage would not last, but Wyler would go on to be one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, guiding a record three films to the Best Picture Oscar, and renowned for his way with crafting a human drama amidst often epic torment. This, however, was a far more intimate yarn, though it did represent tumult for the handful of main characters involved.
Sullavan would become a cult star in her future, a combination of her onscreen charisma and her private life which was troubled, to put it mildly - the fact that two of her three children shared her fate of suicide gives some idea of the torment she went through, and sadly, put others through. Nevertheless, there's nothing quite like a tragic film star to conjure up sympathy among film buffs, and she was a perfect example, born into an apparently sainted life of wealth, making a career for herself as a celebrity actress, yet simply too filled with problems to appreciate what she had, or indeed cope with it; one of her husbands was the previously mild-mannered Henry Fonda - not after Margaret.
But despite Wyler and Sullavan making names for themselves at the time, a look at the credits offers another reason for cult interest, the screenwriter. This was based on a European play by Ferenc Molnar which had painted the Luisa character as a scarlet woman, seducing the men on her path to success, yet with the Production Code of censorship newly in place and being enforced like never before, Universal didn't want to make any trouble, and hired a writer to sanitise the material. It is a source of ironic amusement that the writer was Preston Sturges, a talent who burned briefly but brightly as a man who pushed back against the boundaries of censorship as far as he was able when he became a director, showing up the Code for the ultra-conservative joke that he believed it to be by smuggling in all sorts of near the knuckle situations and jokes to his work.
In fact, The Good Fairy comes across as more of a Sturges film than it does a Wyler one, despite the odd touches of the director's style (like a mirror scene where Luisa admires her image multiplied in a department store). We are in no doubt that once our heroine reaches the big, bad world it is her maidenhead that is in danger, almost from the off as once she finishes work at night, a louche Cesar Romero tries to pick her up, quite aggressively too, so she seeks rescue from the grumpy waiter (Reginald Owen) she encountered earlier. One thing leads to another and soon she is back at his hotel with him determined to defend her honour, especially when blustering businessman Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz himself) is set on seducing her. Somehow this results in dragging lawyer Herbert Marshall into this confusion, and it was a delight to see him play a romantic lead in a comedy for a change, making him seem very dashing (eventually). If the laughs were scattered, there was an agreeably pixelated charm to Luisa's knack for chaos, and everyone was appealing.