Synopsis: Tell bickering Budapest gift-shop workers Alfred and Klara that they love each other and they might call you crazy. No lovers can compare to the romantic, secret pen pals each knows only as Dear Friend. What Alfred and Klara don’t know, or course, is that they are each other’s Dear Friend.
In the third of their four luminous screen pairings, Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart star in this valentine to love wrapped in the ribbon of director Ernst Lubitsch’s trademark touch: wit instead of buffoonery, sentiment instead of sentimentality, affection instead of attitude.
As enchanting as it was yesterday, The Shop Around the Corner was breezily updated to the electronic age when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan clicked together in You’ve Got Mail. In any age, your patronage will be cheerfully rewarded.
eyelights: James Stewart. its ensemble cast. its repartee.
eyesores: Klara’s meanness.
“Oh, my Dear Friend, my heart was trembling as I walked into the post office, and there you were, lying in Box 237. I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there”
The internet has changed everything. But if anything has been changed radically, it’s the way people meet and correspond: where once people had to meet in person, and then continue to meet in person, or wait as hand-written letters made their way to them, now they can meet remotely and can correspond instantaneously.
Imagine for a moment what dating must have been like before the internet: bereft of online resources, people who had no luck finding romance in person had to put ads in newspapers or join matchmaking agencies. It was a needlessly slow process, but it was the only way to go about it. Penpals had no choice but to be very patient.
And hope for the best.
‘The Shop Around the Corner’ is a 1940 motion picture that takes us back to that time. Set in a small Bucharest shop, it finds Alfred, the shop’s top salesman, enamoured with a woman that he’s never met but with whom he corresponds regularly. One day, his boss hires a young saleslady and she becomes Alfred’s competitor.
But little does he know that she’s his secret penpal – and neither does she. So, while the intensity of their disagreements grows to a breaking point, their daily love letters continue to cement their romance. Meanwhile, other conflicts rear their heads in the shop and Alfred will find himself in a pretty dire predicament.
Will any of this prevent the pair from finding love?
‘The Shop Around the Corner’ is based on a 1937 Miklós László play called ‘Illatszertár’, and it shows: it’s dialogue-based, with witty repartee and clever turns of phrases being the norm. And, though it does take us to other locations, it’s heavily centered on Hugo Matuschek’s shop – in fact, the whole first act takes place there.
In no way does the picture feel static, though: it’s all about the characters and their interactions – as evidenced by the opening, which finds all of them congregating outside the store in the morning as they wait for M. Matuschek to arrive. A feeling of complicity rises from the moment as they chat and catch up with the latest.
The ensemble cast plays off of each other very nicely but, truly, the heart of it is the pairing of James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, in their third film together. Though he’s cordial to her when she first enters the shop looking for work, we then flash forward to six months later and tensions have set in between them.
Now it’s said that Sullavan was prone to being difficult and could even intimidate the most thick-skinned studio bosses, so Klara’s personality here doesn’t seem so far-fetched. And there had been rumours of romance between Stewart and Sullavan through the years, so their rapport also seems quite natural. The parts fit them well.
Frankly, though I found Klara to be a real jerk to Alfred, constantly tearing him a new one for no reason whatsoever, the performances made up for it. And the script explains her behaviour later in the picture, though it mercifully spares us the agony of waiting to reveal the obvious: that Alfred and Klara are each other’s penpals.
Alfred finds out relatively early on, though he’s at first incredulous upon seeing Klara sitting in the place of his mystery girl. But he decides to keep his cards close to his chest as he tries to understand the discrepancy between her written words and her behaviour. The running gag is that she constantly compares him to her penpal.
To her, he’s nothing like the refined, soulful person who writes to her. To him, she’s nothing like the gracious, lovely person who’s writing to him.
Alfred is left bewildered.
Naturally it all works itself out, as do the troubles that plague Alfred and Mr. Matushek; ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ wouldn’t be a feel-good romantic comedy if it didn’t. But it doesn’t feel too contrived – at least for the genre. In fact, it’s quite pleasing to see how cleverly-written a lot of it is. And how funny it is, too.
The picture was one of the last movies that Stewart made before going on hiatus from Hollywood to serve in WWII but, along with ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Hollywood’, it’s one of the ones that made a star of him. He would soon follow it up with ‘The Philadelphia Story‘, garnering an Academy Award for his performance in it.
As for ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, though it was no great hit, it was popular enough to have spawned a musical remake and a Broadway play and to have inspired ‘You’ve Got Mail’, Nora Ephron’s comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It was also selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Not bad for a small picture shot over the course of only 27 days.
Date of viewing: December 22, 2016