I adore The Shop Around the Corner. I say that mainly to warn you that this post will feature much fawning and adoration for one of the best films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. And the fact that it has become a holiday classic over the years is merely a bonus, meaning more and more people are exposed to its sheer brilliance every holiday season.
Released in 1940, Shop stars James Stewart as Alfred Kralik, salesman at Matuschek and Co., a store in Budapest. When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) comes in looking for employment, she charms store owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) and earns herself a position, much to the irritation of Kralik. The film explores their antagonistic relationship at work, juxtaposed with their growing romantic relationship as secret pen-pals. When Kralik discovers that the woman who drives him nuts at work is the epistolary woman of his dreams, his reaction sets off a chain of events that leads to the ultimate happy ending.
Seems like a simple enough movie, right? Yet The Shop Around the Corner is anything but. The film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is the premier example of what scholars and critics have labeled the “Lubitsch touch.” There is no true definition of what people mean when they label the director’s films as having that special quality. Generally, the Lubitsch touch represents an amalgamation of seemingly contradictory styles into one beautifully-rendered production. To that end, The Shop Around the Corner combines romance, drama, suspense, wit, melodrama, sophistication, and humor into one cohesive statement about the human experience. How many other films can do that–make you feel happy, sad, lonely, joyful, depressed, and vitally alive, all at once?
This is one of those movies in which the supporting cast is just as important as the leading roles. The Matuschek and Co. crew provide a heartfelt and sometimes sober backdrop for the romance developing between Kralik and Novak. Morgan, as their unhappily-married boss, is perhaps at his most brilliant in this film, engaging our sympathies as he stumbles through the movie. The subplot concerning Matuschek’s growing suspicions about Kralik’s supposed dalliances with his boss’ wife runs the risk of delving into the maudlin, but Morgan maintains a nice balance of melancholy and bluster.
The movie also features several standout performances among the other members of the supporting cast, including frequent Lubitsch collaborator Felix Bressart as Kralik’s friend (and Matuschek’s punching bag) Pirovitch, and Joseph Schildkraut as Vadas, the smarmy two-faced employee who is actually romancing the boss’ wife. William Tracy also provides a great comedic turn as smart-mouthed Pepi, the store’s errand boy.
True, there is a sense of sentimentality at the heart of this movie. You’d have to be the grinchiest Grinch in the history of grinches not to respond to the truly lovely romantic touches sprinkled throughout the script. And seeing as how the bulk of the action happens around Christmas, such sentimentality is to be expected. But Shop is so much more than that. It’s hard to put into words exactly what I mean.
All I can say is, this movie touches something inside of me. Sometimes, when times are tough, all we need is a reminder that love and hope can be found anywhere–in the friendship of an understanding pal, or a kind gesture from a figure of authority, or even in a heartfelt letter from an anonymous source, assuring us that someone–anyone–is out there listening and caring and believing in us. There is so much love in the world, and in The Shop Around the Corner, it’s encapsulated neatly into 99 minutes for our viewing pleasure. How can you beat that?
You know what? Here’s how much I love this movie–I, a notorious hater of remakes (as there have been so few that have actually worked over the years), actually don’t mind the two remakes this movie spawned. Granted, neither of them reaches anywhere near the levels of brilliance to which Shop ascends, but each has its moments.
1949’s In the Good Old Summertime stars Judy Garland and Van Johnson as the feuding pen-pal paramours. By virtue of its stars, this film has been injected with a healthy dose of musical numbers, and the action has been moved to a Chicago music store. If you are a consistent reader of this blog, it should not surprise you that one of the big draws for me in this film is the presence of S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Garland and Johnson’s boss. The movie also features stone-faced classic film stalwart Buster Keaton–employing some deft physical comedy with Cuddles’ precious violin that recalls some of his more celebrated movie stunts–and the ever-appealing Spring Byington. The movie also marks the first ever big-screen appearance of two-year-old Liza Minnelli, Garland’s uber-talented daughter.
Summertime is the lesser of the two remakes. Transforming the script of a previously-produced film into a musical was not unheard of in Hollywood–look at the bulk of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis films, for instance–but some accomplished this much more cleanly than others. As the male lead, Johnson lacks Stewart’s earlier earnestness and demonstrates little of Tom Hanks’ later charms. Garland, whose legendary troubles had reached a pinnacle in the late 1940s, only seems to come alive during her musical performances, and even then, she lacks much of the spark that made earlier films like 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis so memorably endearing. Still, though this remake is little more than a trifle, it is an enjoyable one nonetheless.
When Shop was reworked in 1998 for the Internet age, pairing golden film couple Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for the third time, the screenwriters did a better job of retaining the spirit of the original. I’m not the biggest fan of Nora Ephron (who tends to wring the maudlin out of the most inane of situations), but I think this may be her best script ever, combining the influence of the original film and elements of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Thankfully, the story does not lose any humor upon being translated from a turn-of-the-century period piece to a modern-day examination of the sticky intertwining of business and personal relationships.
Still, some of the emotion at the heart of The Shop Around the Corner is lost when the secret pen-pals are taken out of a shared workplace and put in competing businesses. Part of the deliciousness of the original is the close quarters in which Alfred and Klara find themselves, and though Mail throws Hanks and Ryan together as often as feasibly possible, the romantic tension takes longer to build, and it ultimately seems less vital, somehow, than the pairing of Stewart and Sullavan. That being said, Mail is quite entertaining, and makes one wish that Hanks would go back to his romantic comedy roots, as he embodies such roles quite nicely.
Despite their respective appeals, however, the remakes have nothing on the original. If you have never seen The Shop Around the Corner, you have deprived yourself of an amazing film experience. Make sure you catch this unparalleled piece of cinema history–it’s guaranteed to be a film you’ll remember.