Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Holiday Flicks #2 - “The Shop Around the Corner”

I expect anyone who’s been reading the film postings here at Robert Frost’s Banjo can tell Eberle & I really like comedies (screwball or romantic) from the 30s & 40s. We’re not entirely monomaniacs in this direction, but we do lean that way. This week’s Holiday Flick is no exception—Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart & Margaret Sullivan.

The film is an adaptation of Miklós Lázló’s play Parfrumerie, which has also provided the story line for the 1949 Judy Garland/Van Johnson musical, In the Good Old Summertime, & the 1998 Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks “date flick,” You’ve Got Mail . But for my money, The Shop Around the Corner is tops.

Lubitsch’s film has a loving aura—a feeling of a story t
old with great caring. This is apparent in everything from the modern fairytale set to the performances of a wonderful ensemble cast—including Frank Morgan (the Wizard of Oz himself, but an actor in many films of the time), Felix Bressart as Stewart’s pal & confidant, family man Pirovitch, Joseph Schildkraut as the sleazy gigolo, & William Tracy as the smart aleck errand boy. The last time I watched the film (last weekend), I also was struck by actress Sara Haden; her character, Flora, is a minor role, but Haden adds some touches that really give Flora a distinct viewpoint & emotional dimensionality.

If you know the Garland film or the Ryan-Hanks flick, you know the story revolves around a romantic misunderstanding; in this case, Stewart’s Alfred Kralick & Sullivan’s Klara Novak are romantic (& anonymous) pen pals; they’re also co-workers who really don’t get along. This opens the door to all sorts of comic (& occasionally poignant) misunderstandings, further complicated by the fact that Kralick’s boss (Frank Morgan’s Hugo Matuschek) suddenly & inexplicably grows cold & hostile toward him.

The film is really a fairy tale in which this blindness to those around us is a sort of curse laid on Matuschek’s shop, & particularly on the proprietor, on Kralick the head clerk, & on shop girl Novak. Although the film is a constant delight & light-hearted on the surface, there is always the possibility of real tragedy as a backdrop; this is dramatized memorably in two scenes: one, in which Matuschek is alone in his shop, the counters shr
ouded for the night, just having learned of a terrible betrayal & of the horrendous way he’s misjudged Kralick; it’s also portrayed in the film’s single most memorable shot—Sullivan’s character Novak’s gloved hand reaching into a post office box for a letter from her “Dear Friend” only to come away empty-handed—Sullivan’s face shows us the anguish resulting from such a simple but profound absence. In fact, these characters, thru their own foibles & shortcomings, all come close to missing chances at happiness. The film’s story tells us of the need to take risk, to step into the open—even to pull up our trouser legs & reveal ourselves (as Stewart does at the film’s close) in order to grasp a possibility at happiness; in a parallel way, we see this, too, in Morgan’s Hugo Matuschek when he befriends the shop’s new errand boy on what would have been a lonely Christmas eve for both.

The film is no doubt sentimental, but it’s far from “froth.” In listing The Shop Around the Corner as one of the Top 100 movies of all time, Time magazine noted, “The once-famous 'Lubitsch touch' was a combination of wry observation, delicate sentiment and gently controlled romanticism. The touch was never more touching than it is here.” For those who don’t know, Lubitsch was a truly great director whose career began in the teens & continued thru the 1940s. His name was enough of a watchword that when Veronica Lake’s down-on-her-luck starlet in 1941’s Sullivan’s Travels says what she wants most is an introduction to Lubitsch. In addition to The Shop Around the Corner, some of his noteworthy films include The Student Price in Old Heidelberg, Trouble in Paradise, To Be or Not To Be, & Heaven Can Wait. Lubitsch brought an especially loving touch to The Shop Around the Corner because he filmed it as a tribute to his family’s Berlin clothing shop (per IMDB, & also Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osborne).

Stewart & Sullivan are pretty much perfect in their roles as Alfred Kralick & Klara Novak—in fact, IMDB states that Lubitsch postponed filmin
g until both were available. There’s real chemistry between the two (as there is among the cast overall), & they both make their characters very appealing, while at the same time fully delineating the shortcomings of each that put the possible romance in jeopardy—Klara’s sharp tongue, Alfred’s reticence, & both characters' proclivity to idealize the pen pal romance at the expense of missing each other’s flesh-&-blood reality.

The film has garnered a lot of recognition over the years—in addition to appearing on Time’s Top 100 list (the full Time list is here), it also ranked 28th on the American Film Institute’s 100 films of the century, & was chosen for preservation in the United Sta
tes National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The Shop Around the Corner is a perfect entertainment for any time of year, but because its plot reaches its climax on Christmas Eve, it’s delightful holiday fare, & it’s frequently aired on Turner Classic Movies; this month it’s being shown on Saturday December 13th at 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time, so set your DVR—or check it out from your friendly neighborhood video shop or Netflix. However you see it, I believe you’ll enjoy this marvelous holiday fairy tale.

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