Monday, June 16, 2014

Shop Around the Corner, The (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch


If one does not take moments to slow down and absorb what happens around them, that person might miss their great opportunities in life and love. In Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner audiences explore a relationship that buds between two individuals who appear to despise each other, not realizing that they have fallen in love with each one another. It would become a romance formula for the ages reimagined many times over, but in this beautiful love story starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart we receive one of the best loved romantic features in American cinema.

The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy about two co-workers that cannot stand each other while unknowingly falling in love through secret correspondence with one another. Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) are two employees at a gift store and appear to have nothing in common, coming to truly despise each other. Kralik is the veteran of the store, a 2nd in command of aorts, while Novak is the piece of brashful youth that thinks she knows more than him. They continually bump heads and verbally clash, but little do they know that both have been corresponding with one another  anonymously in a pen pal relationship and falling in love.

Kralik discovers that it is Novak whom he has been writing to and decides not to reveal his identity to her, while Klara is devastated when her mystery man does not arrive for their planed first meeting. Kralik observes how special this mystery man is to her as she reads letters from him and talks admirably in front of Kralik. In time Kralik and Novak’s working relationship begins to become more positive and playful, with Novak even stating that in the beginning she found him attractive before becoming combatants. Through playfully leading her along Karlik reveals his identity as the mystery correspondent, a relieved and overjoyed moment for the two of them as they embrace and kiss, beginning a new chapter in their relationship.

Story is the classic tale of opposites attract. The two characters cannot stand each other; downright loathe even the sight of each other as they bicker back and forth daily at work. Little do they know that they are absolutely in love with the one another through romantic letters anonymously sent back and forth. It only takes a few moments to step back from their work day feud to realize they are very fond of the inner person whom they quarrel with the entire time. It is a story that seems overly simple and overly played, but here with director Ernst Lubitsch it is done so very well.

Adapted from the Hungarian play “Parfumerie” Lubitsch takes the tale of a gift store in Budapest, Hungary and molds it for the screen. Lubitsch was known for his romantic movies and he does not disappoint with The Shop Around the Corner. The location and type of store in actuality plays very little to the story as the real drama surrounds the discovery and reaction to Kralik and Novak being two people that while working feel one way while being secret romantic pen pals.

What Lubitsch does to make the picture so good is capture the pains and joy of love and the yearning for romance by his characters. Few shots are as sentimentally moving as Sullivan’s hand searching an empty mailbox revealing her heartbroken expression through its small door when she realizes no return letter came from her anonymous friend. Few scenes are so gripping, yet simplistic as when she is sitting waiting for her mystery man while Stewart sits the next table over knowing she is anxiously waiting for him, yet he leaves her waiting. Lubitsch really knows how to make the audience feel the scenes along with the characters.

The picture stars Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart, two old acting friends working their third picture together. Stewart through major successes in 1939 had quickly risen to Academy Award winning status. Margaret was a somewhat popular romantic lead who was to be the film’s troubled beauty. Their friendship off screen made for fantastic chemistry on screen as many filmmakers and studio heads noted on viewing their work together.

Supporting their performance is the wonderful Frank Morgan coming off his The Wizard of Oz fame. Morgan’s performance should receive special note for his comedic timing and ability to play the array of emotions from dramatic to jovial, from remorseful to angry. His lovable grump of a store owner/manager becomes a major turning point in the picture as he fires Kralik, a long time employee believing he is having an affair with his wife, and later great remorse for discovering his mistake and nearly taking his life out of regret. Morgan is the ideal movie boss in this supporting role.

Other stand outs in the film are the roles of Ferencz Vadas played by Joseph Schildkraut, and Pepi played by William Tracy. Schildkraut is just the man you love to hate as seen in some of his past work. He is a bit snooty and fake allowing it to be easy for him to be despised by the audience after discovering it was he that was in fact having an affair with Matuschek’s wife. William Tracy is the peppy youthful errand boy who saves Matuschek’s life and cares deeply for him in the story. His demeanor reminds one of a non-musical Mickey Rooney with his high energy and over the top expressions.

Lubitsch did not expect much from the film upon its release. Although he delayed production in order to have his two stars lined up the feature he thought the film was nice, but did not expect it to be a marvelously beloved picture it would one day become. Over time the picture would be named to the AFI list of all time romantic films and would even be elected to the National Film Registry for its culturaly significance and as piece of American cinema.

More honor can be paid to the film with the fact that the tale would be remade numerous times, from the 1949 musical adaption starring Judy Garland entitled In the Good Old Summertime to the more contemporary 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan pairing in You’ve Got Mail, which pays tribute to The Shop Around the Corner by naming Meg Ryan’s store “The Shop Around the Corner” in the picture. The story would be overplayed so many times that it can almost be called cliché, but it is a formula writers continue to come back to time and time again. The Shop Around the Corner is a very well-constructed and executed romantic comedy that stands the test of time and should continue to be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys the movies.

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