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From the Vaults: 'The Shop Around the Corner' (1940)

September 5, 2010 |  1:20 am

Shop.poster Why, it's another movie by Ernst Lubitsch! And it could not be more different from the stately silent film we looked at last week. (My God, it's almost like this was planned.)

A classic comedy of manners, "The Shop Around the Corner" got a boost in 1998 when "You've Got Mail" came out; it had also been remade in 1949 as the musical "In The Good Old Summertime" with Judy Garland (and a 3-year-old Liza Minnelli). Timeless as the theme may be, it works really well as a period piece. Shops like this just don't exist anymore.

James Stewart plays Alfred, top salesman at a retail shop in Budapest, and Maureen Sullavan is new hire Klara. They get off on the wrong foot and spend most of the movie arguing with each other, both unaware that they're also anonymous pen pals. For both of them, life pretty much revolves around the shop, and both find their letters a welcome escape into a higher realm of thought -- and eventually into love!

Really though this is much more of a workplace story than a romance. From the opening scene, when all the shop employees filter in to start the day, the movie's often an ensemble piece. Stewart's Alfred is the only person who's not afraid of boss man Matuschek (Frank Morgan), and a lot of scenes hinge on the different ways the employees try to ingratiate themselves to their boss. Any modern worker can relate, although the top-top boss is more likely to be in a city across the country than an office right off the sales floor. There's also frequent and noisy comic relief provided by errand boy Pepi (William Tracy).

Once Stewart and Sullavan get going, their snippy exchanges become the movie's best scenes. My favorites are her hiring scene and another bit in a storage room as she works up to asking for some time off -- both scenes start off with a tone of friendly detachment and then gradually dissolve into icy rancor. I love how they coldly address each other as "Miss Novak" and "Mr. Kralik." Over time, though, they develop a grudging respect for each other.

Before the jump here, I just have to warn you people that there's a still from one of the final frames toward the bottom there and, well, if you got at all freaked out by Cary Grant dressed as Santa Claus, you might want to brace yourselves. Life is not always pretty, and neither are the movies. OK, here we go.

ShopwindowAnyway, so I loved the comedy-of-manners aspect and I loved the fighting couple. This movie really is just about perfect. I have to say though  that I kind of didn't buy the romance. Stewart and Sullavan are great onscreen together, so it's not that; and they both make clear how important their pen-pal romance is to their individual characters. (There's an agonizing moment when Sullavan's gloved hand feels around inside her P.O. box for a letter that isn't there, and my heart just turned over for her. I think everyone has known that anguish.) But the excerpts from the letters are sort of vague and infrequent. Maybe Alfred and Klara are more in love with the idea of being in love? Which isn't so bad, I guess. One has to start somewhere.

Or maybe it's Stewart. I have issues with the man as a romantic hero. He's an amazing actor, he always seems like he'd be great to have a beer with, but I just can never imagine wanting to kiss him. I am totally rooting for him and Sullavan to turn into best friends and spend a lot of time together hanging out and complaining about work, but romance? Meh.

Also, it really REALLY bugs me that he figures out who she is halfway through the movie, but keeps it a secret from her until the end. This strikes me as un-cricket. Yes, he tries to break it to her carefully in the restaurant, and he recoils in baffled pain when she really lets him have it (comparing his intellect to a cigarette lighter that doesn't work). It's a brilliant scene. But I just loathe how he keeps working alongside her and writing her letters without saying anything. By the end he's even teasing her, telling her that he's met her pen pal and it's a portly man named Mathias Popkin. It's funny for the audience, because we know it's all going to be fine, but it directs our laughter at Klara, and that's not nice.

GartersAnd would this relationship even work in real life? Wouldn't they long for the tidy anonymity of their pen-pal affair? Won't they have fights where she'll snarl, "Oh, why can't I just put you back in your envelope and stuff you right back into Box 237"? Well, I suppose this is a philosophical question.

Besides, I have the film's baffling final image to get to. Here is the real reason I cannot buy romantic chemistry between these two. In response to an accusation of bowleggedness, Stewart hikes up his trousers and, well:

See, how can you kiss someone after this? Maybe someone more worldly can explain it to me. Anyway, let's hear it for Lubitsch, people! Next week I'll find another director to harass.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon