Today we get into a festive spirit and reminisce about
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Starring: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan
This is story of Matuschek and Company – of Mr. Matuschek and the people who work for him. It is just around the corner from Andrassy Street – on Balta Street, in Budapest, Hungary.
Matuschek and Co. is a quality goods story in the midst of a summer sale. Though sales are slow, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan) continues to employ five salespeople and one errand boy despite other larger, competing shops having fewer employees. Their top salesman is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), a serious and reliable young man who has been working at the store for nine years. Kralik acts as a right hand man to the boss, with whom he has always been close. Lately, however, Mr. Matuschek’s attitude towards him becomes hostile without any explanation. The future of Kralik’s professional tenure there comes into question but, on a happy note, his love life is blossoming as he is falling deeply in love with a girl he has been corresponding with through letters.
One morning during the summer sale, a woman by the name of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) comes into the store seeking work. Although she is initially rebuffed, she eventually earns a spot after successfully selling a musical cigarette box, somewhat to Kralik’s dismay. An underlying tension develops between the two that lasts through to December, three weeks before Christmas as the store prepares for its seasonal rush. It is then that Kralik is let go from Matuschek and Co. due to Mr. Matuschek mistakenly thinking that he has been having a lengthy affair with his wife. Shortly thereafter, he discovers that Klara – who seemingly detests him – is his ‘dear friend’ penpal.
Many events happen in the period leading up to Christmas Eve: Mr. Matuschek survives a failed suicide attempt, Kralik gets his job back, and he and Klara manage to put their differences aside to maintain a nice professional relationship. The holiday season brings about renewal in the lives of the employees at Matuschek and Co. and, for some, lasting love.
Background & Thoughts
Director Ernst Lubitsch worked very hard to get this film made and cared deeply for the story. He purchased the rights on his own and negotiated with MGM so that he could be the one to direct it. In addition, he held off filming for one year until his chosen leads, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, would be free of other engagements. In the meantime, he shot Ninotchka with Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, which was received to great acclaim. The Shop Around the Corner would manage to supersede Ninotchka’s charm, however, and become what many consider as Lubitsch’s finest human comedy. It was, in fact, the director’s own personal favourite film of the ones he made. Moreso, this film is amongst the best that the Golden Age of Hollywood has to offer. It is indeed surprising not to see it on the AFI 100 list but, at the same time, a 100% ‘Fresh’ rating from Rotten Tomatoes is quite something.
“Why does this film work so well?” you may ask. Foremost, the casting is exceptional. I will be forward in saying that James Stewart was one of the best actors to have ever graced the screen and stage. He had an immeasurable amount of talent yet remained a humble man both on- and off-camera. The character of Kralik is wonderfully composed, grounded, and debonair all the while remaining approachable and true. Even though he is wise for his years, his youthfulness does leave him necessitating guidance and reassurance, which is where Mr. Pirovitch comes in. More than just a colleague, Pirovitch becomes a mentor and a reliable shoulder on which to lean at the same time as bringing much needed humour and reality checks to certain situations. Supporting character actor Felix Bressart, who ironically worked with Lubitsch on Ninotchka, was a lovable screen presence. Frank Morgan plays Mr. Matuschek in a stern yet very vulnerable fashion. He is clearly a business man but also has a fragile, giving heart. His kind nature shows in that he keeps on employees despite not having the sales necessary to justify their continued employment as well as at the end of the film when he offers Christmas bonuses. He is a man in need of love and appreciation and thankfully he has his loyal team at Matuschek and Co. to support him when his own family cannot. Margaret Sullavan’s Klara is like a double-sided lollipop – sweet on one side, sour on the other. She is a lovely, petite woman who can show her class when the occasion claws for it. These qualities allow her to find work for herself at a time when holding employment was not always easy to come by. On the inside, she is a complex and intelligent woman and perhaps she can carry herself with pride because she is fulfilled by the correspondence with Kralik. The rest of the ensemble deserves a hearty salute for their efforts, particularly actor William Tracy who plays errand boy Pepi Katona. He gives a divine performance bringing many laughs and a perspective into the goings-on of a worker considered quite low on the food chain.
The fact that the screenplay was so well-written makes the story so likable and, even today, so attractive. It takes into account ordinary, working class people’s wants and worries in life. These characters are fascinating and colourful, making it so that you care about what happens to them and vie to see misunderstandings clear up so that harmony can reign. Old-fashioned values are omnipresent and make you yearn for the simple and joyous life that seems to accompany these wholesome values. One of the best lines of the film comes from an exchange between Kralik and Pirovitch, in which the two men are discussing marriage and setting up a home. Kralik wants to live more fashionably than some by having a room for entertaining guests. Pirovitch finds the idea quite unnecessary and says, “If someone is really your friend, he comes after dinner.” Now, some may argue that socialising and inviting friends and loved ones to one home is quite normal. While that is true to an extent, one must not forget that most of the central characters are simple shop workers who do not earn an extraordinary living. Pirovitch reminds Kralik not to be bigger than his britches and to enjoy a modest home that will provide the warmth and structure necessary to accommodate the newlyweds as well as their eventual offspring. Of course, Pirovitch is a divinely unique character who is content with the life he leads and not envious of others’ financial means. He is a man who loves his family and willingly sacrifices for their well-being, making him one of the purist characters that I have come across in film.
This film has been prominently revisited twice, both times receiving good reception and box-office results. In The Good Old Summertime (1949) was a period-piece and musical version of the story starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson. Since it was made at the height of Garland’s popularity at MGM, many people came to see the picture. I have made an attempt to watch it myself but I must say that it is rather dull. Though I love Garland and Johnson separately, they have no spark together. You’ve Got Mail (1998) is very loosely based on the original story and puts a great deal of focus on the anonymous e-mail corresponding of the two leads played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The film does have its cute and funny moments but it does not come close to capturing the magic of The Shop Around the Corner.
Of all the Christmas-themed films I will recommend, this is one of the top ranking films that I suggest you watch. If your holiday viewing season is already a bit full, you should not worry in adding this film to your list for next year. In any case, The Shop Around the Corner falls into the category of “must see” so for your benefit, do not procrastinate too much in checking this out. 🙂