The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, as shop workers Klara and Alfred, are a perfect pairing.

 

Rating: 10/10

So this is what they mean by the Lubitsch touch. This masterpiece leaves me wondering why rom-coms are just bloody awful nowadays, especially when compared to the classics of the 30’s and 40’s (maybe all the possibly interesting story-lines have been done too well already). The remake of this film the dreadful You’ve Got Mail (how dated it already seems) is a case in point.

This film set in  depression era Budapest, follows the workers of a leather goods shop the Matuschek and Company store, and is based a lot on Lubitsch’s own personal knowledge of the family-run retail business having come from a family that ran a tailor’s shop which he had helped out in.  The engaging cast of characters include the lonely and authoritarian shop owner Mr. Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan aka the wizard in Wizard of Oz), the hard working, cultured and intelligent salesman and bachelor Alfred (the wonderful James Stewart) who has slowly worked his way up the shop’s hierarch. Then there is the humble, knowing and affable clerk Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) who acts as Alfred’s confidante, the pretentious, obsequious and manipulative Pirovitch who slyly solicits favour from Matuschek’s wife and the wisecracking, savvy and ambitious errands boy Pepi (William Tracy).Finally there’s Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), the love interest and ambitious and clever saleswoman who is at first Alfred’s arch nemesis. Little do Klara and Alfred that they while they are exchanging witty barbs (such as this brilliant perfectly-timed exchange: Alfred Kralik: There might be a lot we don’t know about each other. You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth. Klara Novak (Miss Novak): Well I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work.) they are falling in love with each other via anonymous correspondence.

The chemistry between Sullavan and Stewart is a marvel to behold (which is undoubtedly why they made , and it is a delight to hear them try to continually top each other while writing florid and sentimental letters to each other. While Stewart’s looks of knowing smugness that comes as he realises that his love is in fact Klara and so starts to play games with her such as turning up at a rendezvous and waiting with her while her ideal lover doesn’t appear; or when he gets Klara to read aloud the letter  in which he has written himself in as a ‘a handsome man’, are also what makes the comedy so potent. Sullavan, meanwhile, is up there with Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur in her ability to hold her own in quick-witted exchanges.

What great about this film also is the satiric depiction of hierarchy in the shop, with comic motifs such as Vadas scuttling up the stairs every time Mr. Matuscheck  asks for an opinion.  While exchanges of dialogue such as the one between Pepi and Mr. Matuschek’s psychiatrist after Mr. Matuscheck has a breakdown, (Pepi Katona: Well Doctor, I would say it’s a nervous breakdown. What do you think? Doctor: It appears to be an acute epileptoid manifestation and a pan phobic melancholiac with indication of a neurasthenia cordus.Pepi Katona: Is that more expensive than a nervous breakdown?), show that  the writers Samuel Raphealson and an uncredited Ben ‘His Girl Friday’ Hecht were able to squeeze comedy out of even the most dark moments, and take a swipe at the craze for psychobabble, rife at the time.

This is a film to enjoy again and again, which is more than can be said for many films. So take my advice and ignore the Meg Ryan/Sandra Bullock/Katherine Heigl/Ashton Kutcher ad infinitum dross and watch instead a rom-com that engages the heart and brain, and is actually funny.

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