The Shop Around the Corner December 20, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s, Ernst Lubitsch , trackback
The Shop Around the Corner is a 1940 film directed by Ernst Lubitsch and adapted for the screen by Samson Raphaelson. James Stewart stars as a sales clerk in a small Budapest shop and top-billed Margaret Sullavan plays a newly hired shop girl in the same quaint little store. The plot point that usually grabs the most attention is that the two co-workers fall in love with each other anonymously while also clashing at work, but this isn’t entirely revealed until over halfway through the picture. The famous remake from a few years ago starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, You’ve Got Mail, neglected the other, precisely crafted details that make the movie so wonderful and instead focused almost solely on the unlikely romance between two people who outwardly loathe each other.
I can remember Hanks commenting in interviews promoting his version that he couldn’t figure out why the Lubitsch film is set in Budapest with characters mostly forgoing accents despite their Hungarian names. Raphaelson was a New Yorker through and through, but Lubitsch was, of course, from neighboring Germany. He had a knack, along with his torch-carrying protege Billy Wilder, for turning eastern European plays and stories into slightly Hollywoodized film product that retained a sophisticated sweetness without melting into sickly sugar. This is what happened with The Shop Around the Corner, which was based on the play “Illatszertar,” or “Parfumerie” written by Miklós László, a Hungarian playwright who, like Lubitsch, relocated to the United States. Obviously, Raphaelson and Lubitsch could have moved the events to New York City or somewhere similar, but why?
Any alterations to the setting might have worked, but, more likely, would have affected the entire atmosphere of the story. The small, incredibly charming store depicted in the film doesn’t feel American at all. The hustle and bustle of metropolitan capitalism feels a world away from The Shop Around the Corner. Cigarette boxes that play “Winter Wonderland” just wouldn’t have had the same effect. Plus, it’s nice to have a Christmas movie that’s in English but retains some of the more European aspects of the holiday.
One thing in the film that struck me on a recent viewing was the incredible differences in how Christmas is now versus how it’s depicted here. Some of these are obvious and expected, but the fascinating and mildly depressing truth is that most aren’t. The shop workers are nice, customer-oriented and ready to help. I’m assuming this was fairly accurate for the time and place and I’m not surprised, but it’s definitely not consistent with my experiences. More interesting is the contrast between how the characters approach the holiday and their expectations and the lack of stress they show. Somewhere in these last 67 years, it seems that Christmas has become one of the most stressful times of the year. Here, it’s a happy time of relief and excitement that isn’t preceded by months of worrying about what to buy or the impending credit card bills.
Cultural and generational changes I’ll accept, but there’s more. Sullavan’s Klara is fretting a little over whether to buy her soon-to-be fiance that she’s never met a cigarette box or a wallet - humble gifts that represent her love without having to compensate by purchasing more and more things he doesn’t need. Now we buy cars and expensive gadgets and various other things we were fine without before we knew neighbor Bob and celebrity spokesperson Jim had one. Essentially, it’s materialism and consumerism that have combined to completely alter the landscape of what Christmas is and what giving gifts must entail. Try giving someone a cigarette (or candy) box that plays “Ochi Tchornya” instead of a GPS this year and watch the reaction. Your kids don’t get iPods, they get imported pigskin wallets. One’s practical and useful, the other is a toy that distances us from society.
Speaking of distancing, the gap created by Alfred and Klara, the two characters Stewart and Sullavan play, is remarkably touching. The film begins when Klara enters the store and Alfred helps her like he would any other customer. He finds out she’s not looking for a cigarette box, but, instead, a job. The very practical store owner Mr. Matuschek (played by the great Frank Morgan, aka the Wizard of Oz) doesn’t have any positions available, but sees Klara is a skilled salesgirl and reluctantly hires her. Lubitsch and Raphaelson insert little digs between Alfred and Klara, all the while slowly building up the mystery pen pal letters Alfred has told his friend and co-worker Vadas about. It’s a shining example of economic filmmaking and storytelling, where a film that’s ostensibly a romantic comedy neglects romance for the majority of the movie and peppers the comedy just perfectly. Lubitsch’s movies are so often described as those dreaded romantic comedies, but they resemble almost nothing in other films of this genre. They’re light and serious, funny and poignant, and genuinely, but quietly romantic.
The duality explored in Klara and Alfred’s relationship is perhaps the film’s strongest aspect. That these same two people could believably love each other without realizing it and simultaneously dislike, even have contempt for the other is remarkable, but absolutely true of how love often works, I think. Their outward interactions, the public face each shows, cause disregard and antipathy while their private, often innermost thoughts and feelings build a deep bond of affection and trust. This is love in a nutshell, right? No one is the same behind the closed doors of their mind as they are in the more vulnerable arena of the daily outside world. When we meet someone and develop a lasting love, isn’t it almost always because we learn and adore who the person really is, the one they show only us, and not who the rest of the world gets to see. Klara and Alfred exposed themselves in their letters and found each other through the mind instead of the eyes. Beautiful. And that moment when Klara realizes that Alfred is her box 237 must be one of the most fulfilling and romantic scenes ever in film, completely and honestly earned by Raphaelson and Lubitsch.
The complex real-life relationship between Sullavan and Stewart adds another fascinating layer to the film. The two had met while Stewart was at Princeton and he joined a stock company that included Sullavan. He was apparently smitten immediately, but she was becoming established as an actress and he was a shy, gangly college student. Things became a bit more complicated when Stewart’s good friend Henry Fonda, also in the same acting company, married Sullavan while she was making a name for herself on Broadway. She went to Hollywood and divorced Fonda, who ended up rooming with Stewart in New York. By the time Stewart made his way out west, Sullavan had become a known leading lady and had married and divorced director William Wyler before settling down with Leland Hayward, who became Stewart’s agent. They would make four movies together total and most all accounts indicate that Stewart carried an unrequited torch for Sullavan throughout.