"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 20, 2012

Classic Film: "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) by Lubitsch

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) rests on a wonderful premise, that has been borrowed by several other films and musicals (such as the inferior You've Got Mail): a man and a woman have come in contact via a newspaper ad and are exchanging letters which turn increasingly amorous, without having met yet; but when in real life they become co-workers, they are always quibbling and quarreling. Their personalities as letter writers seem totally different from their real life egos.

The story, written by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, is set in interwar Budapest, and stresses the insecurity of people's lives because of the 1930s crisis - today, we can feel again their fear of unemployment. Almost the whole film takes place in and around the upscale leather goods shop of Matuschek and Co. Here work eight people among whom the most important are: the owner, Mr Matuschek (Frank Morgan); chief salesman Alfred Kralik (James Stewart); Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), a family man, who keeps as much as possible in the background but who is also the moral centre; Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), an aging dandy (the original of Mr. Humphreys in Are You Being Served, a TV series that also borrowed from this film); an errand boy, Pepi (William Tracey); and the newest member, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), who when the film starts comes in begging for a job. She is Alfred Kralik's romantic pen pal.

This one of Ernst Lubitsch' best films (much better than Ninotchka), a combination of his famous wry humor and delicate sentiment. Himself from Germany and living since the 1920s in Hollywood, Lubitsch looks with nostalgia and idealism at the "Old Europe." The story is also very well written, with many important events (and even a whole person, the redoubtable Mrs Matuschek, whose infidelity is a major plot element) entirely kept off-screen.

The acting is faultless, and there is real chemistry between the two protagonists, Stewart and Sullavan. Yes, they get each other, but only after a bumpy ride during which Kralik is temporarily fired due to a festering disagreement about musical cigarette boxes, Matuschek has a detective spy on his wife and after receiving proof of her infidelity ("she doesn't want to grow old with me") tries to commit suicide, and Kralik and Novak continue verbally pestering each other. She tells him at one point: "I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find: instead of a heart, a handbag; instead of a soul, a suitcase; and instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter that doesn't work." They even set up a date as letter writers, but when she sees him, Novak never believes Kralik can be her romantic pen pal.

My evaluation: 9 points out of 10 for the errand boy who manages to get a promotion. 
Three interesting articles: Acting Ordinary in Shop Around the Corner (PDF), a review at the Wellington Film Society & Senses of Cinema.