Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch                                    Writers: Samson Raphaelson & Ben Hecht
Film Score: Werner R. Heymann                      Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut

One of four films at MGM that teamed Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, The Shop Around the Corner is also one of the classic films of director Ernst Lubitsch. And yet it must be said that it is a very strange movie. The story is based on a play by Hungarian Miklós László and it was almost certainly through the influence of Lubitsch himself that screenwriter Samson Raphaelson did not translate the story to America. Instead he kept all of the Hungarian names and the highly structured etiquette of the period and it gives the piece a strange, disorienting feel the first time through. Nevertheless, it is still a charming story, one that would be remade twice, first a few years later as an MGM musical called In the Good Old Summertime starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and then by Nora Ephron nearly sixty years later as You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Stewart and Sullavan would follow up this film with the Nazi resistance picture The Mortal Storm later that year, which also featured the talents of Frank Morgan and cinematographer William Daniels. This film is only nominally a holiday picture, as it ends on Christmas day, but because of the strange nature of the story it never really caught on with the general public as a classic in the way that Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life eventually did.

The film begins in Budapest, Hungary, during the Depression. Delivery boy William Tracy pulls up in front of Matuschek and Company on his bike and talks to one of the clerks, the great Felix Bressart. Eventually all of the workers arrive, including Jimmy Stewart as the head clerk of the tiny department store and Joseph Schildkraut, a dandy who is always going on about how wonderful he is. Because all of them are so utterly dependent upon their jobs, they are frightened of anything they say that might disturb their boss, Frank Morgan, and have become incredibly obsequious, hanging on his every word. Stewart, however, is the only one who will be truthful with him, which brings him no end of scorn from Morgan but also a grudging respect. Before the store opens Stewart reads Bressart part of a letter he has received from a girl. It turns out he has been corresponding to a personal ad in the paper with a woman only interested in sophisticated discourse rather than “the vulgar details of how we earn our daily bread.” A little later Margaret Sullavan comes in looking for a job. Stewart tries to turn her away, but when Morgan think’s she’s a customer he falls all over her . . . until he learns what she wants and runs away to his office. Later, however, Sullavan manages to sell a horrible musical cigarette box and he hires her over the objection of Stewart.

Morgan, as it turns out, is in something of a crisis. He suspects his wife of having an affair and further suspects the culprit to be Stewart. He’s had him over to his house for dinner and when he does his wife fawns over Stewart. Stewart has also written poems and sent her flowers as well. And in that context Stewart’s honesty becomes an irritation that he can no longer bear. But Stewart has his own problems because he and Sullavan can’t stand each other and when they’re around each other they do nothing but exchange barbs. Meanwhile he also wants to get a raise from Morgan because he is going to meet his woman from the personal ads and is convinced he wants to marry her. Everything comes to a head just before Christmas. Morgan calls Stewart into his office and fires him before his date with his mystery woman. Now he can’t meet her because he doesn’t even have a job. But he goes anyway, not to meet with her but to have Bressart take a look at her to satisfy his curiosity. The bottom really falls out of his world, however, when it turns out his pen pal is none other than Sullavan. Wisely, he decides not to confront her with the truth, but instead begin a campaign of making Sullavan like him first. It’s not an easy task, considering she despises him, but it makes for a fascinating second half of the film.

Besides the setting, another aspect of the film that feels strange is that for some reason nearly all of the actors approach their roles as if they were, in fact, on stage. Stewart seems to be the only genuine film actor in the bunch and he, along with Bressart, are easily the best part of the film. Even Sullavan gives in to a broad interpretation of her role that feels forced and unsettling. Lubitsch had purchased the play on his own and attempted an independent production deal, but had difficulty getting any traction. Eventually he signed on with MGM as a director and the play was part of the deal. After deciding on his leading players, both were currently working on films and while he waited for them to finish he made Ninotchka. Along with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, Hollywood script doctor Ben Hecht worked on the screenplay in one of his many uncredited assignments and adds a great comedic touch to the character played by Bressart, though not so much when it comes to William Tracy’s role. The Shop Around the Corner is definitely a film that rewards repeat viewings. The strangeness eventually falls away and the viewer is left with a charming story that delivers the perfect dose of humor and sentiment in equal measure.

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