Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner is one of those films that seem to get better each time you see it. The warmth that projects from the screen and the teaming of James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are only two things that make this movie a standout in the filmographies of all involved.

The fluffy but pleasant story benefits greatly from the “Lubitsch touch”, since director Ernst Lubitsch had the knack of giving significance to little things without taking them too seriously. Presenting his characters honestly yet sympathetically, he makes the somewhat contrived situation seem believable and worth caring about. Its appeal comes across as almost effortless, but you only have to compare it with the less effective 1998 remake You’ve Got Mail to see how important the right touch is with this kind of story.

In Budapest, Hungary, the Matuschek and Company store owned by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) and the bachelor Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is his best and most experienced salesman. When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) seeks a job position of saleswoman in the store, Matuschek hires her but she and Kralik do not get on with each other. Stewart and Sullavan are delightful as the clerks in love with romance and then with each other - without knowing it. Their dialogue - so adeptly handled as to seem utterly natural - perfectly conveys their confusion & quiet desperation as they seek for soul mates.
At its surface, one might assume The Shop Around the Corner to simply be the story of two lovers, Klara Novak (Sullavan) and Alfred Kralik (Stewart), who love each other without knowing it. However, Lubitsch's film runs much deeper than that. It's the story of Matuschek and Compan, and the various human relationships that make the store such a close-knit family. When storeowner Matuschek begins to suspect his oldest employee of having an affair with his wife, we witness the breakdown of two families, both at home and at work. Ernst Lubitsch really does himself proud with this film; the charm of the simple story is that it is so real and relatable.

The atmosphere of life in the Budapest shop is set up efficiently and convincingly, and the cast all settle into their roles seamlessly. As the leads, Jimmy Stewart works perfectly and Margaret Sullavan conveys the right balance of spunkiness and vulnerability. Felix Bressart is invaluable, giving perhaps the finest performance among his many character roles. In some of his scenes, he barely has to say a word to make you smile. Frank Morgan is surprisingly good in a role rather different than usual for him, Joseph Schildkraut is effectively oily as the deceitful Vadas, and the others all help out, too. Lubitsch gives all of the characters a chance to come to life without pretense, just by using simple details effectively.
It all fits together very well, with a great cast and a nice blend of wit and sentiment. The film moves at just the right pace and makes you a part of the characters' world. It makes for a very enjoyable movie that holds up very well even after several viewings and for its age.


  1. As a fan of "She Loves Me", it took several viewings for me to erase the sense that the characters should be breaking into song at appropriate moments. A movie that charms without being cloying.

  2. Hi, just wanted to let you know I just tagged you for the Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award on my blog!

  3. You don't have to do double the work, but please accept The Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award from me as well.

  4. Stewart and Sullivan get almost all of the film's best lines, but Frank Morgan delivers one of the saddest when he learns his wife is having an affair. "She just didn't want to grow old with me."