US Release Date: 01-12-1940
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
- Margaret Sullavan, as
- Klara Novak
- James Stewart, as
- Alfred Kralik
- Frank Morgan, as
- Hugo Matuschek
- Joseph Schildkraut, as
- Ferencz Vadas
- Sara Haden, as
- Felix Bressart, as
- William Tracy, as
- Pepi Katona
- Inez Courtney, as
- Sarah Edwards, as
- Woman Customer
- Edwin Maxwell, as
- Charles Halton, as
- Charles Smith as
Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner
Before Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan e-mailed each other in You’ve Got Mail (1998) and before Van Johnson and Judy Garland corresponded all year round In the Good Old Summertime (1949), James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan played bickering co-workers who had unknowingly fallen in love through letters written to each other anonymously.
Stewart plays gift shop employee Alfred Kralik. He is hoping for a raise from his boss Hugo Matuschek who has other things on his mind. Sullavan plays Klara Novak who, despite the lack of a need for more employees, is able to convince Matuschek to hire her after she sells a musical cigarette box as a candy box, that Alfred said was not a good product. “Well, Mr. Kralik, what do you think now?” Matuschek asks after the box sold. Alfred responds sarcastically, “I think people who like to smoke candy and listen to cigarettes will love it.”
Thus begins a love/hate relationship between Alfred and Klara. It also begins a plot that requires the audience to excuse the coincidence of a woman starting a job at the very place that her secret love also works. Through their letters they decide to meet for dinner. Both ask Matuschek for the night off. Klara gets to leave while Alfred ends up getting fired due to a misunderstanding.
Alfred wanders to the restaurant knowing he cannot meet a woman he has fallen for without having a job. He spies Klara through the window and discovers that the woman he loves and the woman he hates are one and the same. He goes in and they talk but he does not reveal that he is her secret pen pal. He tries to talk to her but she has no clue why. They end up arguing and insulting each other. After Klara calls Alfred an, “Insignificant clerk.” he walks away.
The misunderstanding gets cleared up and Alfred finds himself back at the shop. Novak thinks her pen pal stood her up and after all the hateful things said to each other, Alfred stops sending love letters. Even though we know where everything is headed, the journey could not be more pleasant with Stewart and Sullavan as our romantic guides.
This movie takes place in Budapest, Hungary during Christmas but it could have just as well be anywhere, and as the remakes proved, anytime. The Shop Around the Corner is about love in its purest sense. These two people fall in love through each other’s thoughts and ideas. A side plot involving infidelity punctuates the point that love and sex do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, and Frank Morgan in The Shop Around the Corner.
Ernst Lubitsch delayed the start of filming in order to ensure the availability of James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, both of whom he insisted on to play the bickering pen pals. This was the third of four movies the pair would make together and the only one of them where they are allowed a happy ending. For the record those other films are Next Time We Love (1936), The Shopworn Angel (1938), and The Mortal Storm (1940). The Shop Around the Corner wasn't a big hit with audiences in 1940, but it has since gone on to be considered not only Stewart and Sullavan's signature film together, but one of the seminal romantic comedies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, having been remade twice as Eric mentioned.
Physically, Stewart and Sullavan contrasted nicely. More than a foot taller than his leading lady, Stewart towered over her while she had to tilt her head back to peer up at him. His drawling speech patterns complimented her gentle, smoky voice. Whether bickering or speaking tender words of love, the chemistry between them was always present, a palpable thing of quiet beauty and inner strength.
Lubitsch was inspired by memories of working at his father's shop in Berlin as a boy. The set where most of the story takes place is wonderfully evocative, filled with little details that lend it an authenticity often missing from movie sets of the day. It truly conjures up Budapest at Christmas time (or at least my idea of it). The small cast of characters playing the other store employees all add to the veracity of the film in that it's quite easy to believe them all to be coworkers.
There are several moments that stand out. One is when Sullavan peers into an empty mailbox; a wide-eyed expression of hurt flickers across her face. It lasts only a few seconds but it stays with the viewer. I mean isn't that really what the magic of the movies is all about? Those precious moments of light and shadow that combine to create an indelible impression that's captured forever on film?
Another great scene is the final one where the pair finally get together. He makes up a story about her “pen pal” in order to make himself seem preferable by comparison. It's an unnecessary gesture as she is already in love with him. In real life the two of them had a long, complicated relationship. Some say Stewart carried a torch for Sullavan for years. When he finally married, it was noticed by more than a few that his wife, Gloria, bore a striking resemblance to his frequent costar.
Lubitsch shot the movie in sequence, a method that appealed to both of his stage trained leads. Ironically then, if you can fault anything in their performances, it's the fact that they seem a bit too comfortable around each other at the beginning of the story. They never seem quite like strangers, but then perhaps that was the brilliance of Lubitsch. Since, after all, they really aren't strangers. In fact they know each other's most intimate desires and aspirations through their previous correspondences.
I have to mention Frank Morgan as he gives perhaps his finest performance as shop owner Mr. Matuschek. He provides this romantic comedy with a healthy dose of pathos. His final scene in front of the shop at closing time on Christmas Eve is brilliantly done. It breaks your heart before lifting it up with joy.
Every character in the movie seems like a real person. The script is witty and tender without being either self-important or frivolous, the direction by Lubitsch is impeccable. The Shop Around the Corner is quite possibly the most singularly charming motion picture ever made.
Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner.
As Eric said, this story could have been set anywhere. The Budapest setting seems like an odd choice of locale, despite being based on a Hungarian play. A couple of the supporting actors attempt an accent to indicate its foreign setting, but neither Sullivan nor Stewart speak in anything but their normal voices. And although it's also true that the story could take place at anytime of the year, the use of Christmas in the climax definitely adds to the charm of the story.
Some of the best comedies contain a hint of sadness to them, as this one does. I mean, when I sat down to watch this romantic comedy, I didn't expect a suicide attempt halfway through it. And yet it's this dark moment amidst the lighter ones that gives the ending its poignancy. It also helps to make these characters three-dimensional. These aren't just comedy cut-outs playing for laughs. By the end of the movie they are real people that you've come to know. I suspect that if television had been around when this movie was released that someone would have suggested turning it into a series. There's certainly enough room for one with all of the different relationships in the shop.
Not that I should overstress the drama, because even with the suicide/infidelity subplot, the proceedings are kept pretty breezy. While Stewart and Sullivan spar nicely, plenty of laughs are provided by the supporting cast. I agree with Patrick that Frank Morgan is terrific as the grumpy boss, Mr. Matuschek. He steals nearly every one of his scenes. William Tracy is also quite funny as the delivery boy Pepi.
Despite some weaknesses in its pacing, I've always been a fan of You've Got Mail. It's interesting comparing the two versions. One of the best scenes in that remake takes place in the cafe when Tom Hanks' Joe Fox realizes that his secret pen pal is actually Meg Ryan's Kathleen Kelly and the two argue, with Kathleen telling Joe that he'll never be the man that her unknown admirer is. It's the scene that comes closest to the original, from having the best friend spot the girl through the window of the cafe, right through to having the two leads sitting back-to-back at separate tables. Writer/director Nora Ephron also strongly mimics the method of revealing the identity of the pen pal to her female lead, by having Joe make up fake details about him until finally revealing that it's actually him. She flubs it a bit by dragging it out, where here it's concisely done in one scene.
Eric's right that the coincidence of Stewart and Sullivan working in the same shop while also being pen pals is highly improbable and something you just have to accept, but because of the film's many charms that Patrick extols, it's a plot point that is easy to forgive.
Photos © Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1940)