#448) The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

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#448) The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

OR “Love at First Draft”

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Written by Samson Raphaelson. Based on the play “Parfumerie” by Miklós László.

Class of 1999

The Plot: The shop of the title is a leathergoods store in Budapest, Hungary run by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). New hire Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) impresses everyone except longtime employee Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), and the two constantly clash. What neither of them realizes is that they are each other’s anonymous pen pals, trading love letters that begin with a simple “Dear Friend”. As Matuschek gets ready for a busy holiday season, Alfred and Klara learn to respect each other at work, while continuing to fall for each other over their correspondence. It’s a classic rom-com setup that can only be improved by the Lubitsch touch.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film one of Lubitsch’s “most enduring work” and gives a rundown of plot and subsequent remakes. There’s also an essay by writer and film expert Kevin Bahr.

But Does It Really?: “Shop Around the Corner” is definitely a minor classic, but still a wonderfully enjoyable film. The film’s ‘90s remake is better known today, and while it comes close, it can’t top this film’s genuine warmth and wit. “Shop” isn’t an essential in film history, but its pleasant presentation, as well as its ongoing legacy, has ensured it a welcomed spot on the Registry.

Everybody Gets One: Stage actor Margaret Sullavan only agreed to sign with the film studios (“jails” as she called them) on the condition she could continue to pursue the theater as well. Despite much acclaim (and an Oscar nomination for 1938’s “Three Comrades”), Sullavan only made 17 films in her lifetime, four of them with James Stewart, whom Sullavan helped turn into a star. She could be temperamental (allegedly she was the only person Louis B. Mayer was afraid of), and her later tragedies have overshadowed her filmography, but thankfully “Shop Around the Corner” survives and helps preserve a brief yet important acting career.

Wow, That’s Dated: Well obviously the concept of being anonymous pen pals through snail mail, as well as the gender politics of the ‘40s. And this time on “We Suck at Inflation”: Albert’s monthly salary of $200 a month would be $3600 today!

Seriously, Oscars?: Despite the healthy Oscar turnout for Lubitsch’s previous film, “Ninotchka”, “The Shop Around the Corner” was completely ignored at the 1941 ceremony. My guess: the movie’s January release sunk its chances. MGM’s Best Picture contender that year was “The Philadelphia Story”, which would earn James Stewart his only competitive Oscar.

Other notes

  • A sign of Margaret Sullavan’s star power at the time: she gets top billing over Jimmy Stewart, whose star-making turn in “Mr. Smith” was released during this film’s production.
  • The cast is filled with the kind of rich supporting players you come to expect from the classic studio films. Frank Morgan is giving as flustered and touching a performance as he does in “The Wizard of Oz”, and Joseph Schildkraut’s brown-nosing Ferencz Vadas is a full 180 from his Oscar-winning turn in “The Life of Emile Zola”. And special mention to Lubitsch regular Felix Bressart, who looks like an older Groucho Marx.
  • This movie does an excellent job of portraying the oft-frustrating world of customer service. From impossible customers to complex co-worker relationships and cryptic bosses, working retail has not changed too much in 80 years.
  • This entire film takes place in Budapest’s famous “No Accent” district.
  • Margaret Sullavan has an excellent grasp on this movie’s dialogue; she makes it come across as genuinely clever, rather than spouting a screenwriter’s honed wit. And if she can sell the movie’s musical cigar box, she could sell a pen to Leonardo DiCaprio!
  • In one early scene, Jimmy Stewart and Frank Morgan do the perfect synchronized double take. Forget the Oscars, give them an Olympic medal.
  • Best line in the movie: “Keep the change, send your boy to college.”
  • Things take a dark turn as Mr. Matuschek learns of his wife’s infidelity and attempts suicide. Wasn’t there a love story in this movie? I guess I should have expected this darkness within a comedy from the man who would bring us “To Be or Not To Be”.
  • The joy in the movie is watching Jimmy Stewart interact with Margaret Sullavan once he finds out she’s his pen pal. Each scene plays out with these two characters’ predicaments perfectly defined, making for a nuanced, fun viewing.
  • Klara corrects Albert on his error that Emile Zola wrote “Madame Bovary”. Perhaps Vadas can recommend a few Zola titles.
  • The best shot in the movie is the wonderfully cinematic shot of Klara finding an empty PO box, filmed from behind the PO box, focusing solely on Klara’s hand as she reaches in. It’s lovely.
  • As expected, Jimmy Stewart’s natural sweetness helps smooth his character’s rough edges. Albert could have definitely been a bigger jerk if played by someone else.
  • I didn’t realize Jimmy Stewart has another Christmas movie. And this one spends more time in the holiday season than just the last 10 minutes.
  • “The Shop Around the Corner” ends the way all good movies should end, with Jimmy Stewart showing off those gams!

Legacy

  • While the original play of “Parfumerie” seems to have disappeared, its musical adaptation lives on. Just before penning their career defining “Fiddler on the Roof”, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick composed “She Loves Me”, which still enjoys revivals over 50 years later.
  • MGM, always quick to remake a story they already owned, turned “Shop Around the Corner” into the 1949 Judy Garland musical “In the Good Old Summertime”. The story is transplanted to Chicago, and offers a brief uncredited film debut by three-year-old Liza Minnelli.
  • But the film’s most memorable remake came in 1998, with Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail”, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks (aka his generation’s Jimmy Stewart). The story became about two rival bookstore owners who bond anonymously over the internet. Ah, we were so innocent then.

Further Reading/Viewing: Margaret Sullavan’s daughter Brooke Hayward (a successful actor in her own right) wrote the 1977 memoir “Haywire” about her mother and their difficult family life. The book was a bestseller, and is considered far superior to the “Mommie Dearest”-style tell-alls of the time. “Haywire” was later turned into a TV movie starring Lee Remick and Jason Robards.

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