Friday, August 15, 2008

Target #229: The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch)

TSPDT placing: #238
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
Written by: Miklós László (play), Samson Raphaelson (screenplay), Ben Hecht (uncredited)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is a pleasant romantic comedy, not the sort that I will hold dear to me until the end of my days, but nonetheless a film thoroughly deserving of its reputation. By 1940, director Ernst Lubitsch had long ago taken Hollywood by storm, and his famed "Lubitsch touch" had become a sparkling commercial trademark. This film was planned for a 1939 release, but scheduling conflicts meant that James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan were unavailable for filming. Rather than substituting either of his main stars, Lubitsch decided to postpone production, in the meantime directing Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939). When it was finally completed, The Shop Around the Corner appears to have been met with relative indifference, receiving zero Oscar nominations despite an excellent screenplay by Samson Raphaelson and fine performances from its two leads and Frank Morgan in a supporting role. Time, nevertheless, has betrayed the film's massive and enduring influence, with high-profile remakes including In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You've Got Mail (1998).
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 Company, a stylish gift shop in Budapest, and the various human relationships that make the store such a close-knit family. When store-owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) begins to suspect his oldest employee of having an affair with his wife, we witness the breakup of two families. There's absolutely no reason why the story should not have been set in the United States – perhaps in the blustery streets of New York – but Lubitsch was deliberately recreating the passions and memories of his former years in Europe, the quaintness of love and life before war brought terror and bloodshed to the doorstep. This subtle subtext brings a more meaningful, personal touch to the film – in fact, even as I write this review, I'm beginning to appreciate the story even more.

Sullavan and Stewart are both lovely in their respective roles, but I think that it's the supporting cast that really make the film. Each character brings a distinctive personality to the mix, and their interactions are always believable and enjoyable. I especially liked how Lubitsch knowingly directed much of our sympathy towards Hugo Matuschek, who, in any other film, would have been restricted to an underdeveloped, two-dimensional portrayal. Matuschek may have lost the love of his family, but he recaptures it in the affection of his employees, and you experience a heartwarming glow when, in the bitter cold of a Christmas Eve snowstorm, he finds companionship in the freckle-faced young errand-boy (Charles Smith). This genuine warmth towards a supporting character strikes me as being similar to several of Billy Wilder's later creations, for example, Boom Boom Jackson in The Fortune Cookie (1966) or Carlo Carlucci in Avanti! (1972). Of course, it doesn't really need saying, but Billy Wilder learned from the best.

Currently my #7 film of 1940:
1) The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin)
2) The Grapes Of Wrath (John Ford)
3) Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Fantasia (James Algar et al.)
5) Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen)
6) Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
8) His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
9) The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor)

What others have said:

"Who but Ernst Lubitsch could have pulled off such a winning romantic-comedy classic that dares to include, but is not marred by, such tragic undercurrents, with a frank subplot involving adultery, attempted suicide, and the collapse of a marriage? ... With consummate deftness, Lubitsch scratches the surface of ordinary characters and circumstances and reveals the reality behind the deceptive appearances — the substance and doubts beneath the vain posturing, the false heart behind the smiling face, the poetic soul behind the prosaic demeanor — and serves all of it up with soufflé-like lightness."

"When I watch a romantic comedy, I’ve come to expect certain things – a formulaic plot (usually some variation of the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back in some wild situation), one-dimensional supporting characters, and over-sentimentality. Ernst Lubitsch is one of the few directors able to make a romantic comedy and avoid all of the genre’s negative aspects. The Shop Around the Corner is charming without being manipulative, fun without being repetitive, and witty without being pretentious."
Derek Smith, Apollo Guide

"Teaming Stewart, Sullavan and Morgan, just as in Borzage's The Mortal Storm (made the same year), this also deals with troubled romance in Central Europe, though here the threat is not Nazism but pride and the interference of others... It's a marvellously delicate romantic comedy, finally very moving, with the twisted intrigues among the staff also carrying narrative weight, Morgan's cuckolded proprietor being especially affecting. Thoroughly different from To Be or Not To Be but just as exhilarating, it's one of the few films truly justifying Lubitsch's reputation for a 'touch'."
Geoff Andrew, Time Out

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