The Shop Around The Corner, starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, features the traditional Lubitsch touch in their third team-up.
When Ernst Lubitsch died, as William Wyler once remarked to Billy Wilder, it meant “no more Lubitsch movies.” The movies were personified by what we call The Lubitsch Touch. As explained on the back of the Blu-ray case, it’s the filmmaker’s trademark: “wit instead of buffoonery, sentiment instead of sentimentality, affection instead of attitude.”
The Shop Around The Corner focuses in on a leather goods store, Matuschek and Company. If you pay attention to the opening titles, one quickly understands where the film gets the name. Every day, the store employees gather outside the shop for Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) to open the store. Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is the head clerk. Klara Novak (Maraget Sullavan) is a new clerk and even though the company has too many people already, she gives herself a promotion. What Kralik or Klara don’t know is that they already know each other. They’ve been writing notes addressed only as “Dear Friend.” In person, though, the two couldn’t dislike each other more if they tried!
Eventually, Kralik gets fired through no fault of his own. Mr. Matuschek believes he’s having an affair with his wife. However, Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is the one having the affair. Things happen and Kralik is brought on again to manage. Anyway, it isn’t until Xmas Eve when Klara realizes that she’s been writing to Alfred all this time. He had already figured it out for what it’s worth. But in any event, the film is one of the best romantic comedies of all time.
On the outside looking in, Alfred Kralik and Klara are the last people one expects to fall in love. If you’re wondering if this film this seems familiar, it’s been remade as a musical and also adapted for Broadway. You’ve Got Mail. The film, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, is a contemporary remake. Oh, the days when Hollywood studios and filmmakers would only draw their inspiration from plays and books. We’ve come a long way since then. Stop me before I go on a tangent. No, wait, I’ll stop myself.
When it comes to this film, Lubitsch acquired the play rights of the 1937 Hungarian play, Parfumerie, through an agent, Charles Feldman, so as to keep the prices down. MGM would end up releasing the film despite passing on an earlier chance at buying the script! Funny how Hollywood works. Ultimately, the spirit of the play would remain in the final product. Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson would add “wit and humanity” among other ideas that Scott Eyman notes in the biography, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise. It’s a funny script and according to the biography, Lubitsch draws on his own experiences working for S. Lubitsch. Working with Raphaelson would help Lubitsch evolve as a filmmaker. We see this through the leading roles in films both pre- and post-1939.
One way or another, Stewart would pop into Lubitsch’s head during the screenwriting process. Lubitsch was of the belief that so few actors of this era could pull off the role. However, there was only one actor on MGM’s lot that had what he was looking far and that was James Stewart.
Thanks to the Warner Archive Collection, the film is finally available on Blu-ray as of last December. The picture, remastered in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, holds up beautifully over 81 years after the film was first released in theaters. The comedy may be of the era but the story remains evergreen. Now that I think about it, given a gazillion remakes, perhaps we’re due for an LGBTQ version. Wouldn’t that be something?
While The Shop Around The Corner feels European in nature, the film shows a growth in the work of Ernst Lubitsch as a filmmaker. I may love To Be or Not to Be but when it comes to Lubitsch, he would describe this film as the best picture he ever made.
DIRECTOR: Ernst Lubitsch
SCREENWRITER: Samson Raphaelson
CAST: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, with Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut