Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, Ben Hecht
Based on a play by: Miklos Laszlo
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Starring: James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 99 min
Who fancies watching a Christmas film starring James Stewart? My, what an enthusiastic reaction! Did I mention it’s not It’s a Wonderful Life? Wait, come back! It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) isn’t the only great Christmas film starring Jimmy. There’s also the lesser known The Shop Around the Corner, a cracking little romantic comedy/drama which became the inspiration for the 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail. Wait, come back!
The Shop Around the Corner is another fantastic film on the impressive resume of director Ernst Lubitsch. Although he is often missed off the roster of great directors, Lubitsch is a true master and something of a director’s director, proving to be a massive influence on Billy Wilder. Known chiefly for sophisticated comedies, Lubitsch was responsible for classics such as Ninotchka (1939), To Be or Not to Be (1942) and Trouble in Paradise (1932). The latter, a cyncical, amoral classic notable for its racy (for the time) sexual content, saw Lubitsch working with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, a regular collaborator with whom he made nine films. Raphaelson’s classy script plays a big part in the excellence of The Shop Around the Corner.
The Shop Around the Corner focuses on the staff of Matuschek and Company, a gift store in Budapest during the Great Depression. With the threat of unemployment in the unforgiving economic climate looming large over them, the employees all try their best to please their boss, Mr Matuschek (Frank Morgan) at all costs. All, that is, except the confident, honest Alfred Kralik (Stewart), the longest serving and most experienced salesman in the shop, who refuses to modify his opinions just to flatter the boss. Into their world comes Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a young woman who is desperate for a job and sufficiently impresses Matuschek. Kralik, however, is not so sure and the two take an instant and obvious dislike to each other. Kralik and Novak are also engaged in an anonymous letter-writing love affair with each other but neither realises this is the case. As their rivalry intensifies, so does their love for each other’s postal alter-egos.
On paper, The Shop Around the Corner sounds as corny as…. well, You’ve Got Mail, but in fact there is a lot more to it than this simple, romantic set-up. While it would be fair to call it a romantic comedy, the Stewart-Sullavan romance is only one of several plot threads and sometimes drops out of the story for extended periods. With the Great Depression playing an important role in the story, The Shop Around the Corner has a dark, bitter edge. It features two mental breakdowns and a suicide attempt among its plot points, as well as a constant gloomy sense of financial crises and desperation. Far from resorting to gooey, cutesy “ooooh, when will they find out” material, The Shop Around the Corner also takes a hard-edged approach to the romantic plot. Kralik and Novak don’t just trade witty barbs that belie their reluctant affection for each other, there are moments when they genuinely despise each other and make truly hurtful and insulting comments about one another.
All of which makes The Shop Around the Corner sound like a bit of a downer! It’s not, I assure you. But the emotional weight that Lubitsch achieves throughout is intergral in setting this classic apart from fluffier confections of a similar ilk. This ensures that when the heartwarming and romantic moments do come they feel genuinely earned and sincerely uplifting. Also crucial in this respect are the characters and performances. The Shop Around the Corner opens with the arrival of Matuschek and Company’s employees for the day’s work ahead. One by one we meet these characters, who constitute the entire main cast of the story (other than Mrs. Matuschek, a much-discussed figure who remains unseen, in the tradition of many sitcom wives of later decades). The story, too, largely focuses on the shop as its setting, with only three scenes taking place elsewhere.
The standout performance comes from Stewart as the serious-minded but sweet-natured Kralik, a role which provides as perfect an example as you’ll find of the subtle character variations that make Stewart such a legendary performer. Kralik is a good and principled man like Stewart’s more famous Christmas characterisation George Bailey, but Stewart manages to make completely different characters out of two creations that many actors would have played in a very similar manner. Margaret Sullavan has a good crack at the sometimes unlikable Novak while Felix Bressart is thoroughly endearing as Kralik’s best friend Pirovitch, but the other standout performance after Stewart comes from William Tracy as shrewd teenage delivery boy Pepi. During the grimmer dramatic moments of the film Pepi’s presence is crucial, providing comic relief to prevent a descent into heavy melodrama. Tracy is forceful but never overdoes it, creating a memorable and delightful caricature of a disillusioned errand boy who transforms into a tyrant as he worms his way up through the ranks.
With so many plot threads and characters to incorporate, it’s a surprise that The Shop Around the Corner manages to move at such a leisurely pace in its early scenes. Lubitsch draws us into the everyday grind of retail, involving us in apparently dull arguments about stock and customer service. In doing so, however, he subtlely builds up a picture of the main relationships in the shop so that by the time the script becomes eventful, we’re dealing with fully-rounded, believable characters. It’s attention to detail of this calibre that made Lubitsch famous for having a personal ‘touch’ for portraying humanity in all its flawed glory.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that The Shop Around the Corner is a Christmas film. In truth, only towards the end does the holiday season become prominent in the story but the warmth these final scenes achieve makes The Shop Around the Corner undoubtedly suited to festive viewing, even as the icy bite of its harder-edged approach makes it less sickeningly saccharine than the likes of Holiday Inn (1942). As plot threads resolve, Lubitsch switches the focus more towards the romantic plot and uses the Christmas backdrop to soften the audiences hearts. The denouement, in which the truth is unveiled, is a wonderful two-hander between Sullavan and Stewart featuring a prolonged, cruel interchange which leads to the inevitable but thoroughly earned happy ending.
The Shop Around the Corner is chock full of delights. The characters are rich (save for the two female employees of the shop besides Sullavan, whose presence seems utterly pointless), the plot-threads are numerous, the dialogue is unusual and delightful, the pacing is varied and always appropriate for each give scene. The viewer comes away from the film feeling as if they’ve had a full experience rather than just watched some stock types going through the romantic motions. In recent years, The Shop Around the Corner has finally begun to receive its dues from critics. Having seen it for the first time a few years back, I know it will be a Christmas staple in this house from hereon in.