The Shop Around the Corner (1940): A Festive Ode to Romance & the Working Class
“…and there you were, lying in box 237.”
Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, is gearing up to celebrate its 80th anniversary. We would be remiss to wait another day in saluting Lubitsch’s timeless classic just before the holiday season ends. Packed with resounding themes of love, life, and the working middle class, the film holds itself in remaining a charming and wholesome holiday essential.
Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) reads aloud a letter from his anonymous pen pal to his friend, the sensible and humble Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart). What was first a search for an encyclopedia in the ads becomes a bracing letter correspondence with a stranger. Alfred, a head clerk at Matuschek & Co., indulges in cultural musings with an anonymous woman on the opposite end of the postal box. She makes it clear she wishes not to know what he looks like, for such requisites are benign and superficial. “What does it matter so long as our minds meet?” she writes. Unbeknownst to Alfred, this woman would soon irritate him as she comes to be the new employee at the thrifty Matuscheck & Co. gift shop.
It’s Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) penning these thoughtful letters to Alfred. She’s sharp-witted, resourceful, polite and gleaming with a sense of wonder. Although unknowingly, she corresponds with Alfred at least over the course of 4 letters-worth when the film begins. It’s within the quaint, modest shop of Mr. Matuscheck’s where she vies for a chance at employment. Set in 1940s Budapest, Lubitsch’s film does a service to the working middle class by sneaking in vocal points of financial stakes. Alfred, now over accustomed to a specific way of living, is longing for discovery, maybe from his average life or to indulge new beginnings in the new year. Even the desire that first placed him in the columns of a newspaper ad harks back to the prudence of the times. “Well, you know I can’t afford a new encyclopedia,” Alfred tells Pirovitch
As Lubitsch’s film is set at the cusp of the Hungarian kingdom’s benefit from the approaching trades, the economy is still picking itself back up post-The Great Depression. Time and time again the film maneuvers the interlining pockets of the shop employees, from the managerial top to the common folk substructure. It’s not just the sudden suspicion of his wife’s affairs that strikes Mr. Matuscheck and gives him pause; it’s the insecurity that the bigger, brawnier competitors will outgross him in sales this crucial holiday season. For Matuscheck & Co, its devoted employees will be grateful to receive holiday bonuses, should the shop exceed Christmas projections. Peace, joy and humanity work to strengthen Lubitsch’s characters as they pinch their pennies and find personal fulfillments.
The Shop Around the Corner is a delightful watch this time of year because it simply sweeps you off your feet, much like James Stewart’s eyes, and much like the confidence that exudes out of a fervent, magnificent Margaret Sullavan. It embraces the quirks of conversation, the ones we have with our coworkers just asking for their honest opinions and the ones we might come to have with a “Dear Friend.” It’s poised with modest politeness, traditional pleasantries and deft dialogue by way of Samson Raphaelson’s timeless screenplay. Although dated nearly 80 years ago, Lubitsch’s film finds its heart of gold in the passing forms of handwritten letters and the resilience of kind hearted people earning their bread in the snowy holidays.
The charming shop of Matuschek & Company houses many characters with a stark likeability that extends from a downright, sharp humor to a magnetic endearment of sorts- and they really are an assortment of characters. There’s snappy errand boy, Pepi (William Tracy), the bootlicking, high maintenance Mr. Vadas (who is having the suspected affair with Mrs. Matuscheck, blamed boldly on Alfred by Mr. Matuscheck), the humbled family man Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), and clerkwomen Flora (Sara Haden) and Ilona (Inez Courtney).
Based on the play “Parfumerie” by Nikolaus Laszlo, Lubitsch’s adaptation ties in serendipitous delicacies with real world implications. From the beginning of the film, when Klara steps into the shop, she’s not looking for handbags or trinkets. She’s looking to get employed at a moment’s notice. It’s her urgency that ignites such a chucklesome hiring in spite of Alred’s pushback. After all, she did succeed in upselling a customer on a silly cigarette box that plays “Ochi Tchornya” everytime it opened. Alred and Klara’s back and forth constancy is misled by the other’s readings and intention. Waiting outside one morning for the shop to open, Alfred merely passes on the word to Klara that she may want to reconsider wearing her yellow blouse with green dots. Klara quickly takes his foolish remark and shoves back. “As usual, you are mistaken. It was a green blouse with light yellow dots. And everybody else thought it very becoming.”
The days inch closer to Christmas, with Mr. Matuscheck foregoing an emotional wager on his marriage and the employees racing to stock the shop with goods. Meanwhile Alfred and Klara, writing to each other as strangers, decide to meet up at a café, where Klara will be dawning her favorite blouse- the polka dot one- and will be sitting with a carnation for her awaited admirerer. The lead up has made Alfred rather nervous to meet her. After all he is worried about the chance she may be disappointed. He relates the feeling to being handed a bonus. “As long as you don’t open it, you’re a millionaire. You keep postponing that moment. You can’t postpone it forever,” he tells Pirovitch.
When Pirovitch is told to scope the café through the window and simply deliver the waiter a note in Alfred’s disheartened absence, he comes to see the woman waiting with the novel “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, is actually Ms. Klara Novak. Alfred feels slightly defeated to find out this whole time he has been corresponding lovely words with his workplace adversary. He decides to not leave the note. “She wrote those letters, my friend,” Pirovitch reminds him. And it’s with Alfred’s clear-cut reluctance that he finds it in him to formally approach Klara in the café, deciding to indulge on the wonderful possibility that may be. Of course, he doesn’t exactly lay things out so honestly at first.
“Ya know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth,” Alfred says to Klara. Of course, he isn’t speaking to her as if she already knew the truth. Instead, he stumbles onto the trouble of Klara’s stormy response in deducing his very character. “Well, I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of heart, a handbag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. Instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter…that doesn’t work.” Alfred reels back, deciding maybe there isn’t a spark between the table, and leaves.
The central story is steered by both Stewart and Sullavan, two talents with equal measures of charismatic charm. Beguiled by their bickering, one can’t help but find the two endearing in the throws of a good quarrel- ones that are always fun to watch. Not even a futile bicker over a blouse can feel any more delightful. These are two characters romancing each other without even knowing it. The subtlety of the love at hand is unveiled with each snarky comment, each new letter opened and each glance of the eye. It’s the consistency of their undisclosed courtship that makes watching them so rewarding. It’s about the love story at hand, but also about the tribulations of a closely-knit company at the cusp of Christmas madness. Once truths are revealed in Lubitsch’s film, the pillars start changing and soon Alfred and Klara find the harmony within their written words put gently on each other’s faces to kiss. The Shop Around the Corner is timeless like handwritten letters, holiday spirit and “Ochi Tchornya!”