If I could name maybe one perfect movie, it might just be “The Shop Around The Corner”. Many names can be brought up on this argument, but I might just stick with this film being my answer.
Not many films can capture the delicate elegance this one can capture. It’s light on its feet but has a tinge of darkness to it. It’s full of organic gags that seem to come from thin air, that one can barely notice how they build the film’s structure. It can be funny as well as a bit sad. It’s romantic in a way very few movies are, and cracks open just enough sentimentality that you can swallow it without it becoming too sweet. It’s a charming fantasy romantic comedy that feels very down to earth. It’s all of these things which feel impossible to contain in one movie, yet it does and it’s glorious.
We are told in the opening scroll of the film that the story will focus on the employees of Matuschek and Company, a department store in Budapest. Mr. Matuchek (Frank Morgan) is a bit of a blowhard himself with a short temper but isn’t really a bad sort of guy. He’s seen as a respectable boss who the employees want to please. His lead salesman and surrogate son is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) a loyal and dependable worker whose opinion Mr. Matuchek values more than anyone else. This is perhaps because Kralik is the only one who can get away with being honest to Matuchek and stand up to him when his blow hardness gets out of hand.
Enter Klara (Margaret Sullivan) a poor sales girl who is out of work and wonders in Matuschek and Co. looking for a job. She pleads to Kralik first who sympathizes with her but frankly says they aren’t hiring at the moment. However she proves herself worthy by being able to sell an annoying music box which Kralik hates but Matuschtek likes, thus securing her a position at the store.
Later we find that Kralik and Klara are not really getting along well with each other as they find any way to bicker and fight. However, little do they know, they happen to be secret pen pals who have been writing to each other anonymously and at the same time falling in love. This would be a nice surprise for both of them if the suspicion of Kralik having an affair with Mr. Matuschek’s wife didn’t complicate matters.
“The Shop Around The Corner” feels very lived in as it focuses on its characters. They are painted as very relateable people who are concerned about everyday things like making a living or spending too much money. There are two separate scenes where the employees hang around the front of the store waiting for Mr. Matuschtek arrival to open the store. Here we see them shooting the breeze as co-workers would, about things that concern them. The dialogue speaks so much as to who they are but it remains playful and very light, for instance there is a bit of gossip about Mr.Matuchek’s wife and how she may have had her face lifted, or Kralik complaining of indigestion after he had too much goose liver at the boss’ house the night before. These moments are very mundane, but there is beauty in the way they are presented as a sort of observational comedy much in the same vein modern comedies have become.
But there is sadness and loneliness crept in these people as well. There is a bit of a quiet struggle within everyone to feel happiness and in that way it leads to a desperation in the love story between Kralik and Klara. They are two people who oppose each other, yet they yearn for the same thing: that feeling of connection one gets when you fall in love. They are both book-worms which might add to their feeling of romance and whimsy to their otherwise unremarkable existence. With Kralik and Klara we see what most of us want out of this world, that break of reality romance can give you. This unrealistic affection builds up this fantasy in their heads as to who their secret pen pal might be, and the film plays on this with pitch perfect aplomb for both parties.
Things start to come ahead when Kralik actually finds out first he’s been corresponding with Klara, and when he sees her in a cafe waiting for her Prince Charming, it ends up being one of the best dialogue scenes in all of cinema. Here we see Kralik sizing himself up with Klara figuring out if she might be someone he could fall in love with. It’s a wonderful two-handed bit of sincerity, flirtation, and contempt, but each one dodging their true feelings the other might have for one another. Stewart and Sullivan are evenly matched here and have never been so charming or sweet. Stewart is known for his “awe-shucks” persona and there is a bit of that here, yet he’s playing someone who is a bit more sophisticated than you might see in the films he made for Frank Capra. He makes Kralik into a bit of a neurotic who’s obsessive compulsive about his place in the department store, which hides away a real insecurity about himself.
Sullivan is one of those great forgotten actresses who sadly isn’t as well-remembered today, even though she starred in three other films with Stewart. Klara is probably her best known role today, and she gives off a wonderful grace with her whispery register to her lines. Klara is the real lonely heart in the film, she is able to convey such hopefulness and sorrow in her eyes, she can break your heart with a glance. As film critic David Thompson noted that the moment Klara looks in an empty mail box as she sees she has received no letter from her pen pal is one of the greatest shots in film history as Sullivan conveys so much heart ache, you just want to reach out to her.
There are so many of these moments, usually done with glances or reactions that draw up so much subtle emotion, despite the film being filled with so much wonderful dialogue. It is worth noting the film’s direction Ernst Lubitsch who is a legend. Lubitsch is known for inventing the modern romantic comedy and is probably as important to the genre as Hitchcock is to thrillers. Lubitsch started in silent films creating wonderful bedroom comedies that involved love triangles, and infidelity. Yet Lubitsch was never one to show too much in his films, rather he always hinted at something more devilish or naughty going on usually by implying it with bits of dialogue or a glance of an actor’s expression. There is a bit of that going on in “The Shop Around The Corner” particularly involving the affair sub-plot with Matuschtek ‘s wife, something that isn’t played so much for laughs as in Lubitsch’s earlier films, but is rather played with subtle pathos. This is the film where Lubitsch comes down to earth a little bit, although not entirely, he’s still able to bring lightness to what could have potentially be dark.
There is a love Lubitsch has for his characters here, and you could sense he was trying to go for something more authentic than he was in his more frivolous though brilliant high-class comedies. Above all he’s staying sophisticated, he never goes for the easy joke, but rather builds his jokes around the world he creates. The humour comes from the situations, the characters, and the tone of the film. Lubitsch never sacrifices the mood for a joke, he wants us to care about these people, not laugh at them, the fact that something funny might happen is part of its charm.
“The Shop Around the Corner” wasn’t that big of a success when it came out, which is a surprise considering Lubitsch was one of the most successful filmmakers at the time. I feel like when it came out, it may have looked like a bit of a modest film, nothing too spectacular about it, it’s a humble story about humble people who are looking for love, it doesn’t strive for anything more. But there is a truth to this film that has made it remain special, it speaks to that yearning in all of us, and that feeling of wanting to be loved and wanting to fall in love. It’s very easy to see ourselves in a film like “The Shop Around the Corner” maybe that’s why it remains so timeless, and so charming. Many films have tried to reach perfection this film has obtained, it’s the type of perfection that is invisible to the naked eye, it doesn’t try to impress us, it’s much to sophisticated for that. When they say “they don’t make em like they used to” you could relate it to “The Shop Around the Corner”, but I would alter it a bit by saying they can’t make em like they used to.