Monday, December 20, 2010

"The Shop Around the Corner" - 1940

“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) nostalgically shows us the finely delineated everyday moments that are more trying, require more patience and courage, give more delight and a bigger emotional rush than even the most hectic modern countdown to Christmas. Reportedly director Ernst Lubitsch’s favorite film, it is no one wonder, for there is so much of his personally constructed Gem├╝tlichkeit. It begins with the lilting, breezy dance orchestra music we hear at the opening and closing credits.

We’re going shopping this week with a look at the commercial aspect (though incidental) of Christmas as seen through this film, and on Thursday, with “Holiday Affair” (1949).

There are so many charming aspects to “The Shop Around the Corner”, most especially that the minor character actors play major roles, including many beautiful solo moments that compliment the major stars here: Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart.

You’ll remember Felix Bressart from a slew of films, even if you don’t know his name. Here he is the elder shop clerk who assiduously avoids the blustering boss with whom he knows he can’t win, and seems to bring the warmth of his simple home where he is “Papa” to his wife and children, into the gift shop where he and his fellow employees have a kind of second home. We last saw him in this post on “Portrait of Jennie” (1949) where he played the befuddled movie projector operator.

You’ll remember Sara Haden as Aunt Milly from a long parade of Andy Hardy movies. She is the old maid secretary here instead of the old maid aunt. Charles Halton is the detective, also seen in dozens of movies in minor roles, probably you’ll recall him as the bank examiner in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).

William Tracy is a standout as the clownish, clever delivery boy, likable and conniving, who eventually gets a promotion and lords it over the new delivery boy.

The new boy is played by a young Charles Smith, who could tear our hearts out with his gentle innocence and hopefulness.

Josef Schildkraut, who won the Best Supporting Oscar for “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), continues to prove his versatility as the two-faced sales clerk always trying to stab his fellow employees in the back (we’ve all known them).

There is Frank Morgan, just off “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), who skillfully trades his customary comic confusion for a more dramatic role as the fussy boss, Mr. Matuschek, whose personal anxieties and ultimate near-tragedy affect his entire staff.

All these players make the movie seem like an ensemble piece, where the last shall be first. Still, there is a major plot line for the two stars apart from the goings on in the store.

Especially good in his role is James Stewart, the head sales clerk, a man who must be a buffer between the mercurial whims of the boss, and the helpless junior staff. Mr. Stewart has the ability to play that kind of young man who, while being street-wise and knowing the odds of life are stacked against him, manages to balance his wry pragmatism with a brave idealism that buoys him. He walks a fine line in his relationship with his boss, and with his secret love, a woman he knows only by her letters. We saw recently with “Love Letters” how much can be won, and lost, in precious correspondence and the allure of a well-turned phrase.


Margaret Sullavan plays the newest member of the staff, who cleverly and with chutzpah manages to charm a disinterested lady customer into buying unmovable merchandise, thereby getting herself a job and starting her role as a thorn in the side to James Stewart. They are combative throughout the film, but each has a secret. Eventually, we come to understand that the anonymous pen pal letters they write to prospective sweethearts are actually written to each other.

The story has been remade in several incarnations, including the post here on “In the Good Old Summertime” (1944). But this version has a charm all its own, and I think a good part of it is Lubitsch’s setting the story in Budapest during the Depression. I love the signs all written in Magyar, including our many peeks at the currency tabs on the cash register.


Miss Sullavan, with her Dresden doll features and her precise stage speech with her throaty voice seems to carry the illusion of Europe, as does, ironically, James Stewart. We may see him usually as his “Mr. Smith” icon, the all-American idealist. But there was also something, as mentioned above, of a practical, doubting, soberness to James Stewart’s portrayals, as if he is someone who was fooled once and is determined not to be taken in again. His gentlemanly reserve fits well here in this middle European gift shop.

I love Felix Bressart’s low bows when shaking hands. The Americans and the Europeans in the cast seem to blend well together, without parody.

Made in 1940, while World War II stripped away the independence and the lives of many, many Europeans, we may well guess that this is Mr. Lubitsch’s tribute, and perhaps farewell, to a more peaceful era in Europe. Hitler may have been well forming his plans in the 1930s, but there is still in this movie something decidedly nostalgic, something Habsburgian about this setting. It might be the cigarette boxes that play “Ochi Tchornya” (Dark Eyes), or the courtly shrug of the shoulders attitude that one must make the best of things in this troubled world.

The commercial aspect of Christmas here is gently expressed. Certainly Frank Morgan exhorts, and bullies, his employees into gearing up for the hoped-for Christmas rush. Christmas Eve, a light snow without sleet or the slightest breeze falls on the shoulders of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in the street, teased by decorated window displays. Mr. Morgan’s gift shop does the best business since 1928, the last Christmas before the Wall Street crash.

I like James Stewart’s line to Felix Bressart when they discuss the excitement of getting a bonus, the anticipation of opening the pay envelope and wondering how much. “As long as the envelope’s closed, you’re a millionaire.”

We sense the boss is made the happiest when, after inquiring after the Christmas Eve plans of his employees, who all have somewhere to go, his newest staff member, young Rudy, is all alone this night. Boss, alone himself, joyfully invites delivery boy to a first rate restaurant feast as Mr. Morgan learns the true spirit of Christmas, not from ghosts, but by his own errors, his near-tragedy, and his gratitude that life does go on in spite of how much of a mess we make of it sometimes.

If you’ve not seen “The Shop Around the Corner”, TCM is showing it tonight.

Come back Thursday for Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh in a much larger department store setting in “Holiday Affair”.

13 comments:

Ed Howard said...

This is such a sublime movie. It's so quiet, so evenly paced, that the deep wells of emotion it taps kind of sneak up on you over the course of the film. And I agree that, even though it's so obviously a Hollywood studio production with American stars, it does capture a quaint Old World charm that's really touching and beautiful. The world this film creates seems real but fragile, as though this kind of charming Old World urban milieu was on the verge of being lost forever - as, indeed, it probably has been, not only because of WW2 but because of a more rabid breed of consumerism than the gentle commercial culture depicted here. There's a sense that materialism hasn't run rampant here yet, that these things that people buy mean something not for their own sake as things to acquire, but as signs of affection for their families and friends, tokens of love, playthings to represent their feelings.

Kevin said...

I first saw this movie three or four years ago. I fell in love with it and it has become a holiday favorite.

You mention the cast and I agree that the character actors are a big part of the charm of the movie.

The scene with Mr. Matuschek and Rudy ranks up there with Father O'Malley singing Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral to Father Fitzgibbon as my favorite Christmas movie moment.

Truly a great movie.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Gentlemen, there is little I can add to your detailed, and most kindly, descriptions of this movie. You show just how much it deserves to be on everyone's Christmas movie list. I'm glad it has such eloquent fans.

Yvette said...

I haven't seen this film in years, Jacqueline, so my memories of it are very vague. I did see YOU'VE GOT MAIL (which I disliked). This, I understand, was an attempted 'update' of THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. I must get around to seeing it again, especially after these glowing comments. I am most especially taken with the supporting cast of character actors.

But still I hesitate and I'll tell you why:
Margaret Sullivan. I once heard a personal story of her behavior during one of her marriages which so shocked and disgusted me, that I instantly swore I'd never see another film with her in it.

I know, I know, personal behavior should have NOTHING to do with an actor's films, but sometimes it does.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Yvette. Your reluctance about watching a film with an actor whose real-life behavior disappoints you is nothing new among film fans. I think we've all come across information from time to time about film stars that colors our opinions of them and their performances. It's human.

Margaret Sullavan, though talented, was, at the very least, a troubled person.

Your comment reminds me that when I first saw this movie I kept wondering who else I could think of who might play her role in it. Not that I dislike her, (and I usually don't try to re-cast movies as I watch them), but for some reason I couldn't get past the feeling that her depiction lacked something that another actress might have provided.

However, I've either gotten used to her in the role or else her "European-ness" as I stated in the post, just seemed to work for me. I can respect her contributions to this film. And you know, I never really could think of a replacement for her anyway.

I hope you can give the film another try sometime. Maybe you'll find some worthwhile nugget you can keep.

Yvette said...

Oh, I will, at some point. But tonight it's CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT with Barbara Stanwyck. Last night I tried to watch another Stanwyck film, LADY OF BURLESQUE but I had to stop part of the way through - it was simply AWFUL. Stanwyck is perfection as usual, but the rest of the cast and the screenplay are dismal. Funny, I remembered this film being better than it is. Disappointing. But I loved watching Stanwyck jitterbug with Pinky Lee. :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Christmas in Connecticut" is fun. I blogged on it some time back. They talk about food a lot. Makes you hungry.

Caftan Woman said...

One of the appeals for me of "The Shop Around the Corner" is a sense of theatricality. It lives and breathes like a movie, but at the same time has such perfect structure and dialogue like the best plays. Both aspects are enchanting.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Caftan Woman, that's a good point. I love films that are structured like plays. There is an energy by focusing the action in a confined space that we don't get normally in a film that takes us to different locations.

Matthew Coniam said...

One of the few Lubitsches I've never seen, but you make it sound irresistible. Don't know why I never caught up with it; I suppose it just never came my way during those formative years when there were dozens of old movies on British tv every month. But it would seem from this that I have no excuse not to make a special effort to see it!

Looking forward to your piece on Holiday Affair too - one of my regular Christmas favourites and once a very obscure film indeed. It's great to see the word getting around about it - a bit like being in on the moment when Wonderful Life rose from the ashes.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Matthew. I like your comparison with "Wonderful Life" rising from the ashes. I agree "Holiday Affair" seems to be the flavor of the month lately. I don't know how the re-emergence of popularity of individual films or individual actors happens, but it's fun to observe.

Lisa Joan Sepa said...

I love this movie, but I find Margaret Sullavan off-putting and annoying. I just don't like her as an actress! Which I find odd. I can't place what I find so off about her.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Lisa Joan Sepa, and thanks for commenting. I need to see more of Sullavan's movies to decide how I feel about her style. Unfortunately, she had a short film career.