Masterpieces of American Cinema: Shop Around the Corner (1940)

the_shop_around_the_corner_posterStarring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan at the peak of their careers “The Shop Around the Corner,” a deliciously nuanced and graceful tale, is one of the finest films made by maestro Ernst Lubitsch.  This 1940 film ranks as one of the greatest romantic comedies be made in Hollywood during its golden age, and a perennial classic during Christmas.
The expression, “Hollywood doesn’t make them anymore,” applies to this picture more than others. I am grateful to the great film critic, Andrew Sarris, who introduced me to the film in one of his classes at Columbia University.  In 2000, when I organized a tribute for Sarris at the L.A. County Museum, to celebrate the tribute volume that I edited, Citizen Sarris: American Film Critic, he chose two films for screening and discussion: “The Shop Around the Corner” and Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player.”
It’s not for nothing that the Hungarian-born helmer earned the inimitable “the Lubitsch touch,” showing his brilliance in handling the presumably mundane lives of supposedly ordinary people with meticulous attention to detail.
The opening title says: “This is the story of Matuscheck and Company.” And, indeed, the store represents an extremely intimate, tightly knit group of employees, devoted to the task of pleasing their customers–and their boss.
At the first peak of his career, James Stewart, who in the same year won the Oscar for another gem, “The Philadelphia Story,” plays Alfred Klarik, a sales clerk working in a leather goods shop in Budapest. A respected employee, he has gained the trust and respect of the shop’s owner (Frank Morgan).
Stewart’s colleagues include Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), an aging clerk who leads a simple life by avoiding arguments of any kind. Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is a bourgeois who brags about his status and newly acquired wealth. Pepi Katone (William Tracy) is an aspiring, insecure clerk who’s bossed around.
Things change when an unemployed girl named Klara Novak (the sublime Margaret Sullavan) enters the shop and begs the boss to hire her as Christmas help. Initially, he refuses, but he changes his mind after seeing her selling a musical cigarette box to a fat woman for use as a candy box. She gets the job, much to Klarik’s indignation.
Meanwhile, through a lonely-hearts ad, Kralik meets a wonderful girl, though he knows her only by her box number, 237. After exchanging several romantic letters with the charming femme, he makes a date to meet her in person. Klara, too, carries an epistolary romance with a man she’s never met and whose name she doesn’t know. 
In a change of pace, Lubitsch handles a large ensemble of lead and secondary characters, each of which fully developed with his/her quirks and anxieties, with unusual delicacy and grace.  The scholar James Harvey has poignantly observed: “The ironies and jokes in this film are not about people’s sexiness (remarkably for a Lubitsch film, there are no double entendres, not a single risqué line or gag) but about their touchiness, their petty anxieties, their vanities and uneasy egoisms.”   
Lubitsch began shooting “Shop Around the Corner” three months after completing the comedy “Ninotchka” (Garbo Laughs!), the Divine’s greatest commercial hit. Done on e modest budget of about $500,000, the film was shot in 28 days.
Before its premiere in New York, in January 1940, Lubitsch told reporters that “it’s just a quiet little story, not a big picture,” and that he hopes, “It has some charm.” For the helmer, the film’s chief distinction was giving Frank Morgan, an actor he admired, his first chance to play straight. Morgan didn’t disappoint and his Matuschek is one of the greatest characters in Lubitsch’s oeuvere. 
After the film came out, Lubitsch said: “I think I never was as good as in ‘Shop Around the Corner. Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer than in this picture.” Lubitsch followed this picture with two other great comedies, “To Be Or Not to Be” and “Heaven Can Wait.”
End Note:
In 1940, Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan also appeared together in Frank Borzage’s “The Mortal Storm,” for which Sullavan earned her first and only Best Actress Oscar nomination.
The movie was later turned into an MGM musical, “In the Good Old Summertime,” starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson.
Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, based on the play “Perfumerie,” by Nikolaus Laszlo.
Camera: William Daniels
Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Music: Werner R. Heymann
Art direction: Cedric Gibbons and Wade B. Robottom
Running time: 97 Minutes