Valentine’s Day Editor’s Pick: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

by on February 8, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Tue Feb 14 at 6:00, 8:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

 

BAM continues their traditional Valentine’s Day pairing of an exemplary romantic comedy from the Hollywood Golden Age and dinner. While the Dinner & Movie packages are already sold out, tickets to the film are not (and the website has a handy list of recommended restaurants in the area).
 
Other holiday programming around town: Film Forum has a rare 3-color Technicolor print of Nothing Sacred, starring the divinely daffy Carole Lombard. IFC Center’s “Stranger Than Fiction” series selects Woody Allen’s underrated mockumentary Zelig, unexpectantly poignant and decidedly hilarious. Daryl Fleming and his band The Public Domain return to Nitehawk Cinema to provide live accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, whose romantic ending was heralded by James Agee as “the greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid” (and tickets are currently at a special Valentine’s Day discount!)
 

And FSLC might be programming with the single ladies in mind with their Paul Newman double feature, as Cat On A Hot Tin Roof isn’t exactly a warm and gooey meditation on romance. Although the second half of the bill, The Long, Hot Summer, documents Newman and Joanne Woodward’s steam production shortly before their fairly tale marriage.
 
But we here at Alt Screen can think of no better way to celebrate humanity than Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling gem. The director later called this “the best picture I ever made in my life;” the Village Voice suggests, “The romance achieves such an exquisite balance of sympathy and humor that The Shop Around the Corner emerges as one of the most civilized creations of the cinema;” and no less a comedy authority than Billy Wilder named it his favorite film of all time!
 
Asks Film Forum Repertory Programmer Bruce Goldstein, “Has there ever been a greater romantic comedy? The answer is no.”

 
Peter Bogdanovich gets extra sappy about “probably the warmest, most human romantic comedy ever made,” after the jump.
 

In Movie of the Week :

Lubitsch’s towering 1940 bittersweet comedy of vintage genius only becomes more precious as the years pass, like the finest wine – Lubitsch’s films often supplying a comparably inspiring buzz, but one that stays with you far longer than any wine could. It’s also got James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, for God’s sake! There have been a couple of remakes, but none of these even come close to the special warmth and humanity that emanates from every frame of this original comic masterwork.
 
Indeed, The Shop Around the Corner is one of the richest looks at the oddly contradictory and unpredictably diverse traits of human nature. The picture never for a second stretches credulity; you soon realize Lubitsch’s unspoken point that regular people are the same all over the world, no matter how individually quirky they may be. The Shop Around the Corner is a picture that makes you feel good about people and life, even while it touches you with the transience of happiness, the pain of regret, the essentially irreconcilable differences between youth and age. Like all great art, it enriches the soul, makes you better through its special goal. It is one of Lubitsch’s greatest gifts to us.

 

 

Whit Stillman cites it as his favorite Christmas film, for The New York Times:

Ernst Lubitsch, revered director of the cinema of the wink — films that were witty, stylish and a little amoral — made this jewel box of a human comedy toward the end of his career.
 
The story’s ostensible focus is the prickly romance between an uncommonly sharp Jimmy Stewart and the always lovely Margaret Sullavan. “It’s true we’re in the same room, but we’re not on the same planet,” Sullavan feels obliged to say at one point. “Why, Miss Novak,” Stewart replies, “although I’m the victim of your remark, I can’t help admiring the exquisite way you have of expressing yourself.” The exalted idealism of Sullavan’s correspondence with her unknown “Dear Friend” and Stewart’s aspirations for self-improvement by encyclopedia reading are reminders of the virtuous resolution making of early and not-so-early adulthood.
 
The film’s timeless quality suggests the lasting attractions of Christmas, changing with the period of one’s life but not so much between the generations. Perhaps its greatest charm is as a loving portrayal of a microcosm of humanity, the shop employees each playing their necessary parts as if divinely ordained and not just Lubitsch-arranged — the God of heaven manifest on Earth, or at least on film.

 

 
Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

Close to perfection–one of the most beautifully acted and paced romantic comedies ever made in this country. It is set in the enclosed world of the people who work together in a small department store; Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart are the employees who bicker with each other, and in no other movie has this kind of love-hate been made so convincing. Their performances are full of grace notes; when you watch later James Stewart films, you may wonder what became of this other deft, sensitive, pre-drawling Stewart. As for Sullavan, this is a peerless performance: she makes the shopgirl’s pretenses believable, lyrical, and funny.

 

David Jenkins for Time Out (London):

For my money, this is Lubitsch’s masterpiece, an immaculate conflation of his sprightly shooting style, expertly layered wisecracking and bracing realism, all topped off with a romantic subplot that offers a nakedly joyous celebration of young, serendipitous love.

 
David Thomson in Have You Seen…?:

Onscreen there was an enchanting chemistry between Jimmy Steward and Margaret Sullavan. They had found the mirror in which each one could look adorable. He cramed over her and she arched back to look up at him. Their two voices dropped to a hush as intimacy took their breath away. So of course it is inspired of Lubitsch and Raphaelson to launch this film on the notion that they can’t stand each other. It works deliciously. … out of all this emerges something fit for Shakespeare or Mozart — that the head and the heart fall in love at different speeds. This is a comedy in which earnestness or gravity endangers true love.
 
Moral of it all: The Shop Around the Corner was nominated for nothing in 1940. Neither did Lubitsch ever win an Oscar. That’s how good Hollywood was then: The gems were smuggled out with the costume jewelry

 

 

Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

There are no art deco nightclubs, shimmering silk gowns, or slamming bedroom doors to be seen, but this 1940 film is one of Ernst Lubitsch’s finest and most enduring works, a romantic comedy of dazzling range that takes place almost entirely within the four walls of a leather-goods store in prewar Budapest. Interwoven with subplots centered on the other members of the shop’s little family, the romance proceeds through Lubitsch’s brilliant deployment of point of view, allowing the audience to enter the perceptions of each individual character at exactly the right moment to develop maximum sympathy and suspense.

 
The New Yorker highlighted the film as “the consummate movie about courtship” in 1991:

Lubtisch and writer Samson Raphaelson agreed that their enchanting 1940 collaboration was their truest work. If any movie deserves the adjective “timeless,” it’s this one. It’s a distinctively bittersweet comedy about all the romance and intrigue that arise among the employees of a Budapest leather-goods and gift shop. The movie kids – and honors – men and women who hope to build a life around a steady job and family and to make their co-workers a family too. If the 1932 Lubitsch-Rafelson farce “Trouble in Paradise” is an ideal movie about seduction, this is the consummate movie about courtship.

 
A.O. Scott’s video essay, for The New York Times:

 
And Peter Bogdanovich’s introduction for TCM:

 

David Bordwell compares Lubitsch’s subtler approach and continuity editing to the film’s quasi-remake You’ve Got Mail.

 

Ed Howard for Only the Cinema:

What’s especially striking about the film’s humor is the vein of real, deep sadness that runs through the center of it. There’s a sense of loneliness in both Kralik and Karla, who separately believe they’ve found love in the form of someone they’ve never even met face-to-face, someone they’ve only corresponded with through letters. There’s more than a hint of desperation in both characters: they invest so much into their romance-by-pen, as though it represents the last chance they each have for happiness or romance. In the process, they don’t realize that the object of their love is right in front of them every day, that their relationship consists of sparring angrily by day and writing loving, romantic letters to one another by night. As such, the film is about the ideal of love as contrasted against the more prosaic but also more tangible reality: it’s telling that before Kralik can reveal himself to Karla, he must adjust her expectations downward by shattering the fantasy of the letters, preparing her not only for the revelation that he’s her great love, but that her great love is only a flesh-and-blood man after all. Lubitsch also has a wonderful feel for the anxieties of money, for the pressures of the working class life and the fear of losing a job, and the film makes great use of the Christmas setting for its subtle commentary on consumerism and salesmanship. It’s a beautiful, funny, emotionally complex masterpiece with so much heart, so much beauty, in every image and every line that, despite its modest, unassuming surface, it winds up being an almost overwhelming experience.

 

 
Andrew Sarris in You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet:

Unlike the artificial and arbitraty stasis of upper-class characters in parlor plays-into-films, the rigorously observed work-a-day restrictions on wage slaves, however genteel, make a virtue of necessity. Every morning except for Sunday the “staff” gathers in front of the shop in order to await the royal entrance of Mr. Matuschek for the ritualistic unlocking of the portals. The plot thickens with intrigue which is the resolved eventually both satisfactorily and sentimentally.
 
Only the most exquisite delicacy and tact keep the plot from overheating into overblown whimsy. There is sad wisdom at work here. When the avuncular go-between Pirovich is privileged to monitor the progress of the romance, his benign smile of indulgence escapes smugness by suggesting instead a nostalgia for his own lost illusions. Similarly, when Kralik watches the ailing Klara perk up when she received a letter from her admirer otherwise unknown to her, but known to us and Kralik as Kralik himself, Kralik’s gaze is made tender by the quiet happiness he derives from observing the innocent joy of his beloved. Though Kralik has written the letter in a comically manipulative fashion, he is not any less moved by Klara’s response. The viewer is made to feel the deep respect Kralik expressed for Klara’s vulnerability. The decency and generosity revealed here transcend the mechanics of the contrivance. And the stellar electricity generated by Sullavan and Stewart energizes even Lubitsch’s style to a new peak of emtion.

 


 
James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood:

It has that combination of exaggerated delicacy and unexpected power that Lubitsch at times seems almost uniquely to command. And it holds a unique place in his work. It’s the Lubitsch film which is most overtly about experiences of love and affection. Less about romantic love – though it’s certainly about that – than about the achievement of benevolence. It was indeed a new sort of Lubitsch comedy.
 
The ironies and jokes in this film are not about people’s sexiness, but about their touchiness, their petty anxieties, their vanities and uneasy egoisms. And Frank Morgan’s Matuschek is the ground of all the movie’s pain. No other Lubitsch film is so directly in touch with the anguish of feeling.This is – for the first time – a Lubitschean comedy in which the adultery really hurts. And there are no jokes about it.
 
The jokes, reflecting on the characters’ absurdity, keep shifting into something else. We are always surprised by affection in this movie – surprised at the tenderness of feeling lurking in a joke that we’ve taken to be merely clever in a way, those elaborate permutations of witty contrivance that Lubitsch and Raphaelson are so adept at involving us in.

 

 
Kent Jones proclaims it the ultimate depiction of the workpace, for Film Comment (May/June 2009):

What instantly separates The Shop Around the Corner from almost every other work-centered movie is its honesty. Where most films make a stark distinction between small-minded and generous co-workers, Lubitsch, screen- writer Samson Raphaelson and Miklós László (the author of the 1937 source play, Parfumerie) know that everyone is small- minded when they win or lose, not to mention potentially magnanimous and brave. Everyone is petty and instinctively tries to score points with the boss and off of each other, but everyone is also ennobled. No one is above darting up the ladder to avoid giving their “hon- est opinion” to the boss, and everyone enjoys whatever taste of power comes their way. The movie is known for its ingenious and delicate romantic entanglement, but it would be nothing without this frank acknowledgement of human fallibility in the workplace, unencumbered by moral hierarchies.
 
Lubitsch’s attention is as constant as his charting of spatial relations is uncanny. Morgan strides with unashamed vaingloriousness on a tirade through the store, figuratively and literally commanding more space than anyone else, and it prompts one of many fleeting but unforgettable details. The camera hones in on Margaret Sullavan as she reacts to her boss’s screaming fit by scurrying away and then down to the floor where she frantically rearranges boxes under the counter. It’s a perfect, poignant, terrifying moment in which self-protective instinct results in an abandonment of ego before self-regard has time to kick in. And when Stewart leaves his fellow employees after he’s been temporarily fired by Morgan, the close-ups of his key to the store and his salesbook are heartbreaking, because of the outsized value and importance with which they’ve been invested.
 
Lubitsch knows that in the workplace, embarrassments and self-negations are not signs of faulty character but necessary survival skills. They’re not to be applauded, but they’re not to be judged either. Nor, in the end, is Morgan’s pomp, or his embarrassed reluctance to apologize for his abuses of power. The workplace is inherently imbalanced, but when it’s not subject to top-down corporate fascism or exploitation, it’s also a site of never-ending negotiation that occasionally settles, for a brief interlude, in a suspended state that resembles democracy. It’s just as exquisite, and ephemeral, as the spell cast by the Red Shoes ballet troupe. There is sentiment in The Shop Around the Corner, but there is no sentimentality. It is good-natured but it is also unerringly wise. The film’s unparalleled grace is inseparable from the pettiness of its characters, which shifts unnoticed into magnanimity over the course of time. And then, perhaps we can imagine it shifting back again at a later date. Because this is one of those rare films that allows us to see a future for its characters, whose dreams of three-room apartments and petit-bourgeois happiness will be realized and replaced by grander dreams many times over as they make their way through a life at work.

 

 
Andrew Sarris’s heart belongs to Margaret Sullavan:

Sullavan has managed, at least in one’s memory, to appropriate all the movies in which she appeared, and to impose upon them her own life-facing intuitins, tragic but not maudlin, playful but not frivolous, all too wise but quickly weary of the consequences of wisdom in her fearful eyes one can see the end from the very beginning, but wait, the lips and chin are moving whimiscally and there is hope and humor for a very little while.

 

But he heaps praise upon Jimmy Stewart in the final scene of the film (time for the newbies to quit reading):

It is a dangerously delicate moment, as it is Stewart who has been the correspondent all along. We know it and Stewart knows it but Sullavan doesn’t know it, and it would have been very tempting for a flickering triumphant expression to have passed over Stewart’s face, but instead an intensely sweet and compassionate and appreciative look transfigures the entire scene into one of the most memorable occurrences in the history of cinema…I could not think of any other actor who could have achieved an effect of such unobtrusive subtlety.

 

 

Farran Nehme Smith of The Self-Styled Siren agrees:

The Siren’s favorite Stewart performance came in The Shop Around the Corner. There’s never been a better picture of what it’s like to work retail. All those supposed Stewart tics are absent here. It’s a simple characterization of a typical store schlub, a clerk trying to get by like any other, with just enough brown-nosing to rise in the company and still retain some dignity. People in Lubitsch movies are witty beyond our wildest dreams, but Stewart gives his lines a particular twist. He’s a guy trying to stave off boredom by being funny, but making the quips is enough. He doesn’t expect the others to get them and he’s pretty much resigned to the fact that they don’t. And besides, off duty, on his own, he’s discovered a way to pour out his heart, corresponding with an anonymous girl who hears his every secret via letter. Stewart doesn’t try to make Kralik a standout of some sort. Instead, as W.S. Van Dyke said of the actor, he’s “unusually usual.”
 
For almost half the movie now, Kralik has realized the girl he loves is the coworker, Klara, who’s had nothing but harsh words for him. He knows she loves him, but can’t resist making her pay for it, just a little. Kralik tells her that man she’s being writing to has come into the shop–and proceeds to describe a portly, balding, layabout. Savor Stewart’s timing and delivery here, it’s such perfection. A man doing this type of teasing would never telegraph a single thing, for fear of giving away the game, and Stewart doesn’t. He spins out Klara’s discomfort, longer and longer and longer, and we see her very real disappointment grow and grow, until there’s a danger the audience will see it as too much. Except that Stewart’s eyes, when he looks at Sullavan, give his love away. Still we wait and wait, until we can’t stand it any longer, and neither can Kralik…
 
If you want the Siren to dissolve into tears and swear Stewart was one of the greatest stars we ever had, just show her his face as he tucks a carnation into his lapel, with an expression of love that every woman should see directed at her, at least once.

 

 
Slate also cherishes the ending:

A movie about lives stuck firmly in the mundane, The Shop Around the Corner has a melancholy undercurrent that deepens its love story. “Just a lovely, average girl … That’s all I want,” Alfred tells a friend early on. His low expectations get at the movie’s sadness. The collision of the ideal and the real is Lubitsch’s theme: Can love’s fulfillment possibly match the exalted fancies it inspires? When Alfred finds out his pen pal’s true identity, he confronts both disappointment and fear. His mystery woman turns out to be one he knew all along. And now he has to introduce himself—earnest, reliable Alfred Kralik—to a woman who has conjured up an impossible ideal in his place. When he finally reveals himself to Klara, the most poignant moment isn’t the confession of love but the betrayal of anxiety. “Are you disappointed?” he asks her, a question that recalls the heartbreaking ending of Chaplin’s City Lights, when the Little Tramp shows his face for the first time to the once-blind woman he loves.
 
The Shop Around the Corner never strays far from the quotidian. Unlike George Bailey, Alfred never dreams big—he just wants a lovely, average girl. And he gets her. Drunk on fantasy, Lubitsch’s lovers are forced to open their eyes to reality. What they find is that the opposite of illusion need not be disillusionment. The movie’s climax, a tangle of epiphanies and surrenders on a snowy Christmas Eve, approaches the transcendent. It’s one of the most satisfying and well-earned happy endings in movies.

 

 

Harvey again:

It’s the familiar juxtaposition – the one in the know and the one who isn’t – but Lubitsch has raised it to a new power of feeling and delight. It’s not just the way Stewart hovers over her, a figure of complex suspense and affection. It’s the way Sullavan “hovers” over her own consciousness here. Mooning, sighing, hesitating, looking off, looking down, looking away – it’s an extraordinary, very Lubitschean mimicry of a state of complex consciousness. Klara may sense that happy news is coming – as on some level she clearly does – but she registers its approach with hesitation, trepidation, contained excitement, meaning to the end her same strange, funny, finally and triumphantly playful relation to it. They both seem extraordinary in this scene – both marvelous and familiar at the same time, this boy and this girl with their common dread of being “insignificant” and ordinary, each with their own kind of slyness, their own kind of delight, and the passionate unspoken connection between them as the scene goes on. It’s no wonder that this comedy – for all the depressiveness it sounds and evokes, the melancholia and touchiness and vanity – seems finally so elated. Lubitsch transposes it all onto new levels of sunniness and freedom and transforming tenderness.

 

- Compiled by Brynn White

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