Friday, December 16, 2011

Stubs - The Shop Around The Corner

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) Starring: Margaret Sullivan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Samson Raphaelson. Based on a play by Miklós Lászlo. Produced by Ernst Lubitsch. Run Time: 99 minutes. Black and White U.S., Romantic Comedy, Christmas.

Set at Matuschek and Company, a Budapest leather-goods store, two co-workers bicker by day and write secret love letters (“Dear Friend”) to one another by night. I came to love THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER rather recently as a Chirstmas-time favorite. It’s one of those films you hear about occasionally, especially when it’s remade, most recently 1998’s YOU’VE GOT MAIL with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I happened to catch this film one night on TCM at another time of the year and fell in love, just as Klara (Margaret Sullivan) and Alfred (James Stewart) do.

Matuschek and Company is run by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) and staffed with an eclectic group of sales persons. Alfred, the youngest and most polished of the crew is the head salesman at the store. His best work friend, Pirowitch (Felix Bressart) is a family man who tries his best to keep a low profile at work. Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is the shop’s snooty phony sophisticate that nobody really likes. Flora (Sara Haden) and Inez (Ilona Novotny) are the two sales girls in the shop. Rounding out the staff is errand boy and go-for Pepi (William Tracy). Every morning, while they wait for Matuschek to open the store, the workers gather round and talk about the night before.

One morning, Alfred confides in Pirowitch that he has been corresponding with a girl whom he has never met. That day in walks Klara looking for a job. Trying to spare the otherwise occupied Matuschek from having to deal with her, Alfred tries his best to discourage her. But she won’t give up. In an attempt to show what she can do, Klara sells a cigarette box that plays Otchi Tchorniye to an overweight customer as a candy box that will help keep her from overeating. The cigarette box is an item that Hugo wants to stock that Alfred doesn’t think is right for the store. Klara selling one seems to vindicate Hugo, so out to prove he still runs things, he hires her on the spot. Almost right away, Alfred and Klara start bickering with each other, neither knowing they are in love with the other. The Dear Friends finally arrange for a meeting three weeks before Christmas.

That night before he leaves for the rendezvous, Alfred is fired by Matuschek. While he doesn’t come out and say it, Hugo believes Alfred is having an affair with his wife. The newly unemployed Alfred gets cold feet. Now is not the time to make his feelings known, When Pirowitch looks into the window of the restaurant where the meeting is to take place, he relays to Alfred that his Dear Friend not only looks like Klara, but it is Klara.

Later that night, though, Matuschek learns from a private detective that his wife is actually seeing Vadas, Alone and depressed Matuschek tries to commit suicide and he is only saved when Pepi stops him and gets him to the hospital. The next morning, the recuperating, Matuschek makes amends with Alfred and hires him back to run the store during the busy Christmas season. Alfred readily accepts the offer.

Back at the store, Alfred, per Matuschek’s instructions fires Vadas and then rallies the sales crew to make this the best Christmas season ever for the store. Matuschek returns to the store on Christmas Eve and the shop is happy again. Only when they’re alone does Klara finally admit to Alfred that she finds him attractive. In turn, he confides that he is her secret pen pal.

Part of what makes SHOP so appealing is the chemistry between Stewart and Sullivan. This is the third time the two had been paired in movies and their comfort with each other shows. There was also gossip about the two stars having an off screen affair before, during her marriages to director William Wyler and Leland Hayward. Sullivan had been instrumental in getting Stewart’s Hollywood career going and there are obvious sparks between them on screen. It is interesting to note that while Stewart had already starred in such films as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON the year before and would go on to higher heights after World War II, it was Sullivan who got top billing in this film.

Once again, the supporting cast adds a lot to the movie. Frank Morgan, who had just played his best known part as the Wizard of Oz the previous year, is perfect as the somewhat befuddled shopkeeper with a heart of gold. But it is the two messenger boys who steal the scenes they’re in. Pepi is a scheming young man who is tired of running errands for the boss’s wife and rejoices when he can finally tell her off. And to everyone’s surprise, except Matuschek’s, gets promoted to sales.

But it is perhaps Rudy (Charles Smith), the newest delivery boy, who only appears at the end of the film that delivers a heartwarming portrayal of a young man spending Christmas alone for the first time in the big city. When Rudy accepts Matuschek’s offer for dinner on Christmas Eve, you can also see the hunger in his eyes.

Like in The Bishop’s Wife, Christmas is not crucial to the plot, but it does provide a background that allows the story to flourish. In the story, Christmas is as important to Matuschek’s bottom line, as it is to Macy’s, so it is natural that the season would be an integral part of any storyline involving a store. But Christmas is more than a time for shopping; it is also a time for romance. It is a time when no one wants to be alone and if two lovers find themselves at this time of the year, perhaps the magic of the season will make their relationship special. At least that’s our hope for Alfred and Klara.

This film has been remade twice. In 1949 as a musical IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME with Judy Garland and Van Johnson and later updated to emails rather than letters in the aforementioned YOU’VE GOT MAIL. Remade doesn’t equal made better and neither film captures the same magic as THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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