We’ve already taken a look at one film by director Ernst Lubitsch here at FWAMY: the effortlessly elegant but wittily raffish romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), however, is a marked departure from that earlier film, in that it trades the refined trappings of the über-wealthy to focus on a set of retail workers in a shop in Budapest (packed full of thoroughly un-Hungarian American actors). The film also leaves behind the rafts of sexual innuendo and sparkling banter that are a hallmark of Trouble in Paradise to craft something more willing to be deeply earnest about love and loss. But that doesn’t mean that Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (who co-wrote Trouble in Paradise) suddenly decided to get all dour and dreary on us. The Shop Around the Corner still manages to engage with its artful, but sincere, dialogue and excellent sense of character. Foremost among those characters are top salesclerk Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) and new hire Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a pair who loathe each other in person but have unwittingly been falling for each other through an anonymous exchange of letters. If that scenario sounds a bit familiar, it’s because this film was remade in 1998 as the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail. But don’t let that dissuade you, because the famed “Lubitsch Touch” is in full effect in The Shop Around the Corner, and there’s plenty to love waiting there in Box 237. (99 min.)
S. – The Matuschek & Co. store in Budapest is a charming location for the collection of misfits that work for the autocratic Mr. Matuschek. Set against a social backdrop of high unemployment, the nervous gaggle of sales assistants do their best to stay in the good graces of their capricious boss. Chief among them is the longest-serving staff member, Kralik, whose earnest and serious manner gives him the gumption to stand up to Mr. Matuschek’s more frivolous ideas and the patience to manage his oddball co-workers.
The Hungarian setting was rather puzzling to me, while I love cobble-stoned streets as much as anyone the action itself could have taken place anywhere and did not have a particularly European feel or any narrative thread to root it to Hungary. Perhaps some nostalgia on the part of Lubitsch was the reason behind it. A lot of time was spent on the character development of Kralik and Matuschek and it was clear that despite their many differences there was a genuine, although somewhat begrudging, respect between them. But Klara enters to disturb the equilibrium. Kralik and Klara butt heads from the start, but not in the predictable way of so many contemporary rom-coms. They don’t hate each other, it’s more that they just don’t hit if off and neither of them has the mind to get beyond the superficial acquaintance of co-workers. Yet both of them are longing for a meaningful relationship, they just forget to look right under their noses.
J. – The Hungarian setting is a rather strange feature of the film, given its very American cast (save the wonderful, German-born Felix Bressart as Mr. Pirovitch). I think it is partly a nod to the Hungarian play it is based on, and partly a nod to Lubitsch being from Central Europe, which was then in the grip of war. But I think the main reasons for it are threefold: (1) being an American film, the setting allows for it to be a little less mundane and a little more special than if it were set in Chicago or New York; (2) Lubitsch was known for bringing a European sophistication to his films and the Budapest setting fits with his M.O.; and (3) the American film industry of the day was skittish and prudish, and I think putting a film in a “foreign” setting helped make more risque elements more acceptable to audiences and the censors — I mean, this is a film that, for all its sweetness, features a pretty serious suicide attempt.
I think your use of the phrase “meaningful relationship” is a very good one for this movie, because it is a film that is all about relationships. The vast majority of the action is confined to Matuschek & Co., which means the story is driven less by plotting than it is by the interactions of everyday people in their workplace. The film may revolve around the unconventional relationship developing between Mr. Kralik and Ms. Novak, but there clearly are a wealth of wonderfully nuanced relationships already in place in the store. The film does a great job of bringing out the sympathies and hatreds among the staff, which really goes a long way to making this fantastical little slice of Pseudopest feel like a very real place. I particularly love the deeply genuine friendship that seems to be shared by Mr. Kralik and Mr. Pirovitch.
S. – I think this film did an excellent job of describing the strangely intricate relationships that exist in a small workplace. After all, your co-workers are the people you spend most of your waking hours with and, like it or not, you all end up knowing each others quirks and habits quite well. But as the disconnect between Kralik and Klara shows, familiarity can fool you into thinking that you really know someone. In fact you need to make a sincere effort, such as with the friendship between Kralik and Pirovitch, to scratch beneath the surface. The same issue of “How well do you know the people you see everyday?” is explored from a different angle with the relationship between Mr. Matuschek and Kralik. In this case Matuschek, played superbly by Frank Morgan (aka The Wizard of Oz), is forced to question his opinion of his longest serving employee when he learns that his wife has been seen fraternising with someone from his staff. Drawing the wrong conclusion almost results in dire consequences for both of them.
J. – And the film certainly lets its characters go down those dark paths, but above all it is still a comedy — and a very funny one at that. The gamesmanship and bitter exchanges between Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are marvelous in and of themselves, but they are further bolstered for the audience by our access to knowledge their characters don’t share. The film does a very good job of dropping little breadcrumbs of foreshadowing that are never too obvious, but still allow the audience to know what is going on well before the characters do. But that never results in you screaming “No, don’t do it!” at the screen, because the interactions are carefully crafted to use the audience’s foreknowledge to either heighten the romance or add an extra layer of punch to the comedy.
One of the best examples is when Mr. Kralik is fired by Mr. Matuschek. Mr. Kralik is not told why he is being fired, and the film itself has not spelled out the reasoning behind Mr. Matuschek’s decision. But the audience knows very well what is really happening at that moment — and that Mr. Matuschek is very much in the wrong. All of this adds to the emotion of the situation and gives a particular power to the wonderful little scene when the meek Mr. Pirovitch stands up (briefly) to Mr. Matuschek over his actions. There is always a current flowing through the background in this film — as is often the case in real life — which can radically alter our perspective, and it takes excellent writing and directing to make that all seem organic and earned. And the entire cast pulls it off with aplomb — Jimmy Stewart reading off his very positive reference letter moments after being fired is a particularly heartbreaking scene.
S. – The scene where the humble Mr. Pirovitch summons the courage to challenge Mr. Matuschek over his decision to fire Kralik is one of my favorites. It is done in a way that is still in harmony with the character but gives a glimmer of steel to the apparently meek Pirovitch in the face of such an injustice. And at that point I did just want to scream at all the cast on screen, “Just stop being so damn polite and sort things out!” At least Mr. Pirovitch had the spine to actually speak up and question the decision. The shockwaves that emanate through the co-workers are palpable and a testament to the foundations laid in establishing the personal dynamics in play at Matuschek & Co. The blindsided Kralik is particularly poignant.
I really appreciated the way that trouble in Mr. Matuschek’s personal life was alluded to without being spelled out, allowing the viewer to put the pieces together themselves as we witness the small outward signs of the turmoil the boss is in but which bewilders his staff. Of course once the situation has been revealed I also delighted in the way it was played for laughs with the cheeky delivery boy’s simultaneous scolding of Mrs. Matuschek and very public broadcast of her behaviour to his co-workers. “Draw your own conclusions!” may well be the best delivered line in the film.
J. – One of the best delivered lines in any film! Or so says I.
But all of that pales in comparison to the central relationship of the movie: that between Mr. Kralik and Ms. Novak. There’s a very unfortunate trope that has long been a feature of the American romantic comedy: two people who initially hate each other come to fall in love. It’s pervasive and goes back at least as far as 1935’s It Happened One Night (which, to be fair, is a great movie). At this point, that arc is worse than tired, it’s insulting. If people really don’t get along, then they probably shouldn’t be together. Few movies that end with repulsion switching to attraction give me any legitimate hope that the two characters will have anything more than a very temporary happiness together (if that).
The Shop Around the Corner does a great job of sidestepping the many ugly pitfalls of that convention. Sure, Mr. Kralik and Ms. Novak really don’t get along, but that’s really just their professional selves. It’s their two salesperson fronts that collide, and their inner lives are off limits to each other while at the store — but not in those letters. It’s wonderful that a movie can convincingly develop the idea of two people falling for each other’s minds. And Lubitsch I think was smart to cast leads who aren’t overtly glamorous, as befits their social status. Margaret Sullavan’s Ms. Novak has terrible taste in clothing and an angst that sometimes makes her look like she has had a hard life, and Jimmy Stewart’s famed everyman persona feels particularly appropriate for Mr. Kralik. These are two people who happen to have ideas that soar above their actual stations in life, and I like that they come together in that world of ideals before they can agree on the best way to shelve items in the stockroom. It’s definitely a dance on a knife’s edge to make it play out in a satisfying way, but the film is heartwarmingly up to the task.
S. – I felt very involved in this movie due it developing multiple characters rather than just focusing on the two leads, which is so often the case in romantic comedies. But the romance is the pay-off of the story and it was skilfully unfurled. An attachment formed from swapping letters runs many risks. The temptation to create all the facets of an ideal partner based on some shared ideas is fraught with danger, most obviously the significant possibility of being disappointed when you finally do meet face to face. The mutual decision not to exchange the mundane details of their lives and keep the subject of their correspondence to the sharing of ideas shows they were both keen to protect their respective ideals. At the same time this decision allowed Kralik and Klara the opportunity to find in each other the connection they did not make in the confines of working for Matuschek & Co.
Having the truth revealed to Kralik before Klara was an interesting way to watch his imagined future adapt into a real one as he finally opens his eyes to Klara. Right up until the final moments I was not convinced that Klara was going to be receptive to discovering that the subject of her desires was the man she disagrees with on a daily basis in the stockroom. Yet somehow it works. It is like the inverse of having a knight in shining armour come and sweep you off your feet. Instead you discover that the extraordinary was hiding all the time in plain sight. A much more believable and satisfying resolution in my opinion.
J. – There’s a moment when Mr. Kralik first learns that Ms. Novak is his secret pen pal and he uses this knowledge to toy with her. The brutal takedown she gives him at that moment is wonderfully handled by Jimmy Stewart, you can just see him shatter to pieces. What’s great about the film is how he puts those pieces back together. By virtue of the rules of the form, you know they will end up together, but I also like the tension that is brought into the relationship by having one party in the know and the other in the dark. That moment when the lightbulb finally goes off for Ms. Novak is a truly wonderful cinematic moment, made all the better because it serves as the polar opposite of the devastation her beloved felt two acts earlier.