The Shop around the Corner
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Starring: James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut
The Shop around the Corner stands at 8/10 on IMDb and 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. While the film certainly didn’t invent any of the romantic comedy tropes it peddles, only a handful do it with such wry execution. The film is so influential that it’s been remade twice: First as the musical In the Good Old Summertime starring Judy Garland and 60 years later as the email obsessed You’ve Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The “secret correspondence between two lovers who coincidentally already know and LOATHE each other in real life” has been done dozens of times since–often with lesser results. While the plot may feel shopworn today, The Shop around the Corner still makes it seem fresh off the shelves.
A friend recommended it to me when I told her my theme for December was…
Times are tough in Budapest, Hungary, and Klara Novak needs a job. Determined to show her skills, she auditions at Matuschek and Co., much to head clerk Alfred Kralik’s chagrin. Because she butters up the owner, Hugo Matuschek, she gets the job.
Klara and Alfred are cordial at first, but needle each other over the course of six months. As Christmas approaches, they begin to quarrel so frequently that they can barely be in the same room together. Thankfully, after work hours, Klara can read the love letters sent by her erudite pen pal. Alfred has also struck up a correspondence with a woman from the classified ads. He too begins to fall for his own anonymous woman–
You see where this is going, don’t you?
The reason this movie spawned 80 years of imitators? The Shop around the Corner is just the cigarette case/music box you need this Christmas. Not in the market for one? The film’s so damn charming, you’ll want one anyway. For those who haven’t seen this film, the store is trying to sell these novelty boxes. When the intimidating Mr. Matuschek asks his employees what they think of the product, Alfred Kralik is the lone dissenter. Of course, Ms. Novak, wanting to be useful on her first day, eagerly sells the box to a woman, which shows off her skills. Matuschek takes this as a sign of product demand and buys dozens of them. Kralik’s hesitancy stemmed from a concern that, although the music may be charming at first, someone who smokes a dozen cigarettes a day (and is somehow still standing…) will hear the song 12 times a day forever!
As someone who’s metaphorically heard that music box far too often, I wish I’d seen The Shop around the Corner before my younger self was thrust into the rom-com hellhole of the 2000’s. Had that been the case, I’d more readily appreciate the heights this movie achieves and more easily ignore the imitators. I imagine many feel the same way about the “shaky-cam” trend in action movies. While that artistic decision gave people migraines, it was originally and brilliantly used in the Jason Bourne trilogy. Similarly, many believe The Dark Knight to be the best superhero movie ever made, but its dim color palette, relying on blues and grays, has made “serious” blockbusters nigh unwatchable because viewers have to squint in order to separate the characters from the background.
My ambivalent feelings about this trend are, frankly, unfair. The Shop around the Corner plays a beautiful tune–one I wish hackneyed filmmakers would stop covering
While copycat films have likely appropriated anything that was novel about the film in 1940, one can easily admire The Shop around the Corner‘s original craftsmanship. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan’s chemistry had me in stitches! Not often does a pair so winningly carry the film. Everyone else plays their archetypes as lived in characters. Yes Mr. Matuschek is the blustery boss with a heart of gold that we’ve seen before. Yes, Pepi’s sassy-yet-eager errand boy schtick is overdone. Yes, Mr. Vadas makes for a familiar slimy villain. Because these characters hadn’t yet been oversaturated when the film was released, though, the supporting cast plays their roles with fresh enthusiasm, so most viewers can’t help but appreciate the effort. The retro black-and-white charm and the Christmas setting make this film easy holiday viewing.
That said, viewed from a current perspective, I found a few things odd about the film. Why is it set in Budapest? Yes, the script is from a Hungarian play, but James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan are as Hollywood as it gets. No one buys that they’re living in Central Europe for a second–especially because the film was released during WWII! I understand that the film needed stars (James Stewart was hot off of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), so why not set it in New York or Chicago? It’s a bizarre choice easily remedied.
Secondly, one of the main characters figures out the mixup much sooner than their counterpart. While this leads to some deeply funny moments, I began to feel chuffed. The lead character’s poor counterpart is left in the dark, and it feels almost cruel after a time. Had the other character figured out a portion of the secret and lorded it over their love interest’s head as well, the movie could’ve had double the laughs and none of the discomfort. Of course, I mention this long after the film was made. I’m inclined to cut it a break, and I think most other viewers will too.