What makes this movie so atypical is the leading lady, Margaret Sullavan — an actress of legendary skill, nevertheless forgotten over the years by the general public. Sullavan's life can only be described as tempestuous: married four times (including a 60-day stint with Henry Fonda), splitting her professional time between Los Angeles and Broadway, and often both severely ill and depressed — Sullavan never enjoyed the stability of one able to choose a coast and settle there. She would have three children, two of whom would eventually commit suicide — though neither would do so while Sullavan herself was still living. A troubled and unhappy Sullavan would die of a barbiturate overdose in 1960 at the young age of fifty-one.
In spite of making only sixteen films she was as highly regarded as any actress in Hollywood. Sullavan was a performer of such skill that it’s accurate to say that, unlike most performers, she left Hollywood on her own terms. Other aging actresses faded from the film scene for a variety of reasons, but there was always a part available for Sullavan in Hollywood. Her performances are characterized by nuance and intelligence — and yes, that voice. She starred opposite James Stewart in three popular films, The Shopworn Angel (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and The Mortal Storm (1940). Her best performance, in Three Comrades (1938), with Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone, earned her only Oscar nomination. She made No Sad Songs for Me after a seven-year hiatus from the screen, and it would prove to be the final film of her career. Until her death in 1960 she confined her efforts on the stage and an occasional television appearance.
Although No Sad Songs for Me has the same melodramatic potential as any Douglas Sirk picture, it's saved by delightful and clever casting — and not only in Sullavan's case. Each of Harry Cohn and director Rudolph Maté’s choices keeps the film from ever straying too close to histrionics. Wendell Corey plays Sullavan’s husband. Most often utilized as a second male lead — as a foil to a more charismatic and romantic male star — Corey’s sensitive, yet wry screen persona is perfect here. It's fair to suggest that his limited range mars the picture in one key moment, when he finally learns the truth about his wife’s condition, but on the whole his presence is indicative of inspired casting. The other woman is Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors, who plays Corey’s coworker. Yet another good choice, Lindfors is not so beautiful or glamorous as to make it too difficult to imagine her with Corey. Meanwhile eleven-year-old Natalie Wood plays the couple’s daughter.
The film benefits from a tight script, well-constructed from start to finish. It possibly spends more time than it should on the romantic triangle and a less on Sullavan’s internal struggle to come to grips with her disease, or on her relationship with her daughter, but it’s entertaining enough that you won’t care. Although there are some elements of scandal / gossip themes present, the film thankfully is able to avoid languishing on them. Finally, No Sad Songs for Me is also noteworthy for advancing the film cliche of the dying wife/mother figure. Sullavan herself had already starred in one the preeminent 1930s films of the type, Three Comrades, and it’s clear that by the early 1950s (and in the wake of the war) filmmakers were less concerned with Greek tragedy and more aware that life moves on the wake of a tragic death.
No Sad Songs for Me (1950)
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Starring Margaret Sullavan, Wendell Corey, Natalie Wood
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 88 minutes
Availability: Airs on TCM.