In 1938, Margaret Sullavan became a member of a group of many actresses who were not awards magnets in any sense of the word but still well-known and popular actresses who did manage to receive at least one Oscar nomination that would forever enable them to carry the famous expression ‘Academy Award nominated actress’ in front of their name – others are Marlene Dietrich, May Robson, Carole Lombard, Gene Tierney, Dorothy McGuire, Julie Harris, Ava Gardener or Doris Day. In the case of Margaret Sullavan, it’s a small tribute to a very underrated career even though Three Comrades is certainly not among her most well-known performances – rather, her work opposite James Stewart is mostly remembered today, especially her role as Klara Novak in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop around the Corner. But the height of Margaret Sullavan’s critical success did most certainly come in 1938 – not only the Academy recognized her but also the New York Film Critics who gave her their Best Actress Award and apparently the donations for organizations fighting against tuberculosis went up significantly after American audiences watched Margaret Sullavan die from it on the screen. This one nomination maybe did not change the curse of Margaret Sullavan’s career – she never again received another nomination but it adds to her overall reputation as a talented and a strong performer who should not be as forgotten as she probably is today.
Three Comrades tells the story of three friends in post-war Germany and of one woman, Patricia Hollmann, who enters their life and eventually marries one of them. This description already suggests what can be expected of the character of Pat Hollmann – she is the girlfriend, the woman, the wife, the obligatory female presence in a movie mostly about men. And yes, these expectations do come true – Margaret Sullavan plays a part that has been played countless times and sometimes gets nominated for an Oscar even though the actress almost always suffers from the limitations such a role brings – there is almost always hardly any character at all, no development, no depth, especially if the actress misses a strong screen presence to fill some of the emptiness of the character with her own personality. So yes, just like Fay Bainter in White Banners, Margeret Sullavan faced a limited character in Pat Hollman – she mostly exists in relation to the three male characters, she rarely gets a chance to develop her own personality and lacks the typical screen time of a leading player. But – yes, Margaret, here comes the but – sometimes an actress is able to overcome these limitations and not only fill the part with her own spark but actually add to the character, bring more layers to it and create something beautiful to watch – despite all the obstacles. And this is what Magaret Sullavan did as Pat Hollmann in Three Comrades. There is something about this visibly intelligent and thoughtful actress that enabled her to create something very tragic, disturbing, moving and captivating in her character. Her voice, her eyes and her looks somehow turn her into a mix of Bette Davis, Romy Schneider and Greta Garbo and even though she may lack all the fascinating qualities that these actresses usually display, she is still much more than just ‘the woman’ who adds some emotional tragedy to an otherwise rather straight and direct story.
Margaret Sullavan’s performance in Three Comrades mostly consists of two tasks – add the necessary amount of tragedy and create a female love interest. And she not only fulfilled the first task but thanks to her strong characterization and her mysterious screen presence was able to add a constant amount of secrecy to her role. And this also helped her to become more than a female love interest – she never lets the male characters of the story, even though they are its center and constantly redefine it, overshadow her work or her character but uses all her scenes very wisely to create strong presence that is able to maybe not dominate the movie but be one of its strongest assets nonetheless. She lets Pat become a whirlwind of different emotions and reactions but always very calmly and contained. And she also chose a very simple yet very effective way to let Pat become more than ‘the woman’ of the story – by letting her become the fourth comrade. Margaret Sullavan is not the typical love interest as she is neither charming in the usual sense of the word nor overly erotic and not even actively trying to get married or even get attention. She clearly did not expect love to come to her and Margaret Sullavan never portrays Pat as a truly desirable woman since she constantly downplays her appeal. Her chemistry with all actors is always more that of a friend and she’s the kind of woman that would never break up a group of men but instead becomes a part of it She perfectly fits into the group of male characters and that way displays an even greater appeal – she manages to be completely natural, relaxed and non-caring which beautifully contrasts with the seriousness of the part. In her role, Margaret Sullavan is very mature and manages to be both light and seriousness. This way, she was able to be a romantic dreamer, a best friend and a true companion.
The biggest miracle in Margaret Sullavan’s performance is the fact that she was actually able to find so many layers in her role because, as mentioned at the beginning, it is a very thin and underwritten part. But, considering the nature of the role, she does achieve various beautiful successes that may never turn into something truly amazing but are still remarkable nonetheless. But most of all, Margaret Sullavan truly created some unforgettable moments during the last part of her performance – her quiet acceptance, her beautiful display of love and happiness, her ability to find so much magic in such a tragic scene is truly heartbreaking. And even surprising since the inevitability of that scene had been clear right from the start.
In the end, Margaret Sullavan’s performance is a beautiful example of an actress taking what could basically be considered a throwaway-role and filling it with life, meaning and much more. She shows that Pat Hollmann is a woman who is longing for something else while having accepted her tragedy at the same time. Her unique screen presence that helps her to appear so completely mature and decisive while also emphasizing the emotional desperation of Pat Hollmann is combined very effectively with her instincts for the role and so resulted in a maybe still limited but much deeper and more captivating performance than expected. For this, she receives