Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the more charming of Ernst Lubitsch's romances, The Shop around the Corner has been a favorite for generations. Its perfect 'meeting cute' tale of romantic fluff generates a positive feeling about people and a warm optimism for life in general. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan make a likely pair with Stewart finally showing some promise as an actor, to boot. A prime example of 'the Lubitsch touch', the show's screenplay is often quoted as an example of perfect three-act story structure.
The Budapest department store run by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) is a happy little society of salesclerks, where assistant manager Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and salesgirl Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) don't at all see eye to eye. But in secret pen-pal letters they're madly in love with one another, each hardly guessing who their mysterious secret admirer might be.
Screenwriting genius Billy Wilder must have looked upon The Shop around the Corner as movie perfection; he often returned to Lubitsch territory in his screenplays, searching for setups as perfect as this. Like other writers for Lubitsch, Wilder also adapted European stage farces as the basis for Hollywood movies. He never compared himself to his idol Lubitsch, even though he studiously copied many of the master's trademarks - like using at least one romantic gypsy song per picture (in this case, Ochichornya. 2
Samson Raphaelson's central conceit (two secret pen-pal lovers don't realize they already know one another) was the kind of effortless movie magic that Wilder admired and turned into a career-long theme - a situation that creates emotional involvement and romantic suspense from within the characters. Raphaelson (and Wilder) were already experts at the 'meeting cute' gag: a clever way to get two lovers together for the first time. The classic example is from Bluebeard's Eighth Wife: A man and a woman are both in the men's pajama department. He sleeps only in bottoms, and she only in tops, so they buy one pair of pajamas together and split it. Almost all of Wilder's films contain an element of disguise or mistaken identity (or identities) as their main plot engine. Even his non-romances reference the meet-cute dynamics: In Sunset Blvd. William Holden pitches Nancy Olsen the script idea of teachers who share the same classroom (day school/night school) and fall in
love without ever meeting.
Besides a clever concept, The Shop around the Corner goes one better by creating a world around the lovers that we really enjoy sharing. The picture created is almost a valentine to a Utopian Europe that, in 1940, Lubitsch might have feared was disappearing forever. Budapest is peaceful and prosperous and there's harmony among the relatively humble employees of Matuschek's, even with disagreements and misunderstandings. The other clerks, especially
Joseph Schildkraut, are beautifully drawn characters, and even the boss is a charmer. Rather than casting the supporting players as hicks or silly eccentrics as in a typical Frank Capra show, Lubitsch generates sympathy for each and every one of them as deserving of our full respect. All have personal dreams equally as valid as those of the star leads.
For instance, in the movie there's a nervy, somewhat obnoxious errand boy played by William Tracy. Instead of becoming a baddie, he becomes a hero, saving the day at one point. He turns out to be a real take-charge guy - still nervy, exploiting opportunities to the hilt, but a great guy just the same.
Shot with the seamless gloss of the top MGM product of the time, The Shop around the Corner isn't the kind of movie where you remember any particular visual pattern or cutting style. We focus instead on its central relationships. People who love this film are swept up with anticipation of how the romance will unfold; we spend much of the running time knowing things the characters don't, eager for them to find out. With a sweet good humor, the picture doesn't disappoint. It's the kind of confection that appeals directly to the heart.
Taking place around Christmas time, The Shop around the Corner is a great holiday movie. For all the talk about income and selling, the film isn't about money - for Americans at least, all the denominations and names of the Hungarian currency mean nothing! The quaintness and formality of the little store probably demanded that the story be set in Europe: if it were set here, we'd be expecting a labor-management theme, as in The Pajama Game.
It's interesting that when Billy Wilder's best comedies and bittersweet romances tried to place the same kind of emotional never-neverland Lubitsch situations in a more realistic world, critics often gave him a hard time. The Apartment made Matuschek's department
store into a faceless corporate insurance company, combining the whimsy of The Shop around the Corner
with the social bleakness of The Crowd. When the lovers there finally sift through the romantic deceptions, they have to deal with an attempted suicide and unemployment just as Stewart and Sullavan do here, but on a different level. 1
Warner/Turner's DVD of The Shop around the Corner is in perfect shape. The B&W image is crystal clear and the sound equally rich. Not to take anything away from TCM, the cable channel where most of us have seen this gem, but after the satellite transmission and digital compression take their toll, TCM's signal doesn't look all that hot on a bigscreen television. I think I'd eagerly subscribe if an HD TCM channel came into being.
The extras are brief and not as advertised on the box. A 1930s MGM short subject called A New Romance of Celluloid, The Miracle of Sound tells of the technical development of sound films but mostly wants us to know, in MGM's self-important way, just how wonderful the studio is and how we should all say our prayers for it at night like good children. A text file relates the various remakes of the film and the stage play made from it. A nifty trailer appears for Shop in which Lubitsch himself makes a short appearance, but I couldn't find trailers for the other two remakes, even though they're listed on the back cover. Not that I wanted to see anything having to do with You've Got Mail, a terrible picture that somehow managed to make both Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan totally unlikable and undeserving of favor. No Lubitsch Touch, there.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Shop Around the Corner rates:
Supplements: short subject, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 10, 2002
1. Truffaut's Stolen Kisses has to do with detectives and a shoe store, and has a tone that also reminds me of The Shop around the Corner.
2. I guess the Wilder/Lubitsch pictures I'm talking about, to degrees lesser or greater, are The Major and the Minor, A Foreign Affair, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, The Apartment, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me, Stupid, and Avanti!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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