The Shop Around the Corner - 1940

The Shop Around the Corner - Released January 12, 1940. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Margaret Sullavan (as Klara Novak) has a pen-pal lover she has never laid eyes on, and her hope that this inky romance will turn into something in the flesh keeps her loneliness and fear of spinsterhood at bay. Meanwhile, she is monumentally annoyed with her supervisor at the gift shop where she works (Matuschek and Company). The annoying boss is Alfred Kralik (played by Jimmy Stewart), and rumor has it that he is bow-legged under his long trousers, and besides that, Klara finds his ideas noxious and his manner insulting. The two quibble about nearly everything and given an opportunity alone to have a conversation, it quickly boils over into a violent argument.

Alfred is, of course, as this is a Lubitsch film, Klara's secret pen-pal lover, only she doesn't know it (nor does he, though he figures it out before she does, and that certainly changes his opinion of her - - prior to that revelation, he thought she was pretty annoying, too).

When the scales fall from Alfred's eyes, he suddenly realizes that not only is Klara the ravishing creature he imagined from their letter-exchanges, but that he is going to have to kill the pen-pal image he has been describing of himself in his letters (he exaggerated a bit) and he's got to turn Klara's affections to the 'real' him: Alfred Kralik, the one man she loathes the most in all of Budapest (this European city is strangely American in many respects, even with the excellent art direction.)

With the Christmas season as the background for the tale, director Lubitsch steers right into the kitsch and makes it a warm place where love can blossom, or be destroyed, as in the tragic exposure of an adulterous affair right under everyone's nose at Matuschek and Company.

The Shop Around the Corner - Released January 12, 1940. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Screenplay Samson Raphaelson (credit), Miklós László, Ben Hecht (uncredited)

Based on a play by Nikolaus Laszlo

The Shop Around the Corner is probably Ernst Lubitsch's most accessible film, combining his sense of human foible with humor, and providing a bit more satiric bite than is found in the remakes (You've Got Mail from 1998, and In the Good Old Summertime, a 1949 musical with Judy Garland).

Leading man Jimmy Stewart (as Alfred Kralik) has a pen-pal he has been exchanging letters with and with whom he's fallen in love, sight unseen. By day he is an assistant manager at Matuschek and Company, a strangely American gift shop in Budapest, Hungary, owned by Hugo Matuschek (a very cranky Frank Morgan).

An unemployed Margaret Sullavan (as Klara Novak) enters the store one day seeking work and, through a combination of charm and quick-thinking, gains employment. We soon learn she too has a pen-pal lover with whom she hopes to soon meet.

Meanwhile, Kralik and Novak barely get along and bicker constantly, day after day throwing insults and snide remarks back and forth like a never-ending tennis match. Of course they don't realize it, but they are each other's pen-pal lovers.

There is only a bit of story in this film involving the other employees, particularly Pepi Katona (played by William Tracy) who is the shop's messenger boy. Equipped with a bicycle and ironic dialogue, he knows the secrets of the shop, especially about Boss Matuschek's wife (who is never seen, but makes phone calls to the shop demanding money).

Suicide and loneliness

When an affair between the unseen wife and the syrupy, egotistical store clerk Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) culminates in an attempted suicide by Mr. Matuschek, Pepi is on hand to foil the effort and then puts Matuschek into a hospital for an extended stay. But who's going to run the store?

Kralik is put in charge, which is a surprise to everyone (especially Kralik), who had just been fired. Matuschek knew his wife was having an affair and had incorrectly guessed it was Kralik (after all, Jimmy Stewart is the star, not the sharp-tongued Schildkraut).

During all this employment shuffling, though, Kralik had discovered who his beloved pen-pal is, that lady at the store who still treats him with hatred and contempt. So, not only does he have to clean house at the shop (and get rid of the adulterer Mr. Vadas, quietly) but he's got to figure out how to win the heart of the girl he's spent the last 80 minutes of screen time insulting (in between penning love letters to her.)

Love and ridicule

Lubitsch romantic comedies use a technique similar to that of Preston Sturges' films, though Sturges tends to take it a lot further. The character the director cares the most about is the one he ridicules the hardest, and Jimmy Stewart gets knocked around quite a bit. For example, there is a store rumor that he is "bow-legged," something he'll have to prove untrue if he is to win over Miss Novak.

Margaret Sullivan's Miss Novak is an independent, fast-thinking woman who is well aware she is suspended in a no-man's land of endless store clerking and unwanted propositions, not to mention the sheer loneliness of being single. Her secret correspondent seems her only legitimate promise for a happy future, one which Kralik shatters out of petty revenge and to try and clear the way for his in-person attempt to win her heart.

Though this movie is packaged as a sentimental Christmas movie (which it is) it is also a satire of store politics and the culture of pen-pal romance (an industry which evolved into the e-mail / chat version of today). Lubitsch romantic comedies are also a lampoon of love pictures, while simultaneously being the best of Hollywood's golden era romance films, a sweet-and-sour mixture called in that day "the Lubitsch Touch."

Another Lubtisch film: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

The "Film that makes you happy inside," 1940


Original Page April 2013 | Updated Dec 2015 +

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