Classic Film Review: ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ still charms after 80th anniversary
Just the other day, a friend and I had a discussion about what the last true classic Christmas film might be. While we get a number of films centered around the holiday every year (without even including the ridiculous number of Hallmark movies), it feels like a rare occurrence to get that holiday movie that becomes yearly viewing. That makes it even more astounding that such films used to not only be critically praised, but even nominated for Best Picture. Three such films received that honor just in 1946 and 1947 alone. And though it did not reach quite those heights, The Shop Around the Corner earns a place alongside those holiday classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.
Though The Shop Around the Corner was released in January of 1940, it’s a film made to be seen in December, leading up to the Christmas holiday. It’s a romance taking place primarily in the titular setting, a leather goods shop in Budapest owned by Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Matuschek’s best employee is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), who hopes to manage the shop someday. His free-flowing position as Matuschek’s top advisor is threatened by the arrival of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a new employee with experience who may be an even better salesperson than Kralik. Though the rivalry does not last long in that regard, the two are constantly at each other’s throats. With such a toxic partnership, the thought of the two ever falling in love seems impossible.
However, what the two of them don’t realize is that they had a connection before Novak arrived in the shop. We learn that Kralik responded to an ad from a woman asking for a pen pal, in order to discuss topics of “culture.” He gets along with the anonymous individual splendidly through their letters, and the two hope to meet soon. The issue is that the pen pal is Novak, signalling that the two adversaries actually have much more in common than they think. When Kralik learns the truth about his pen pal, he faces a tough decision and a touching reexamination of his feelings for Novak.
Part of the reason this film works so well is that it does not concern itself solely with one aspect of the plot and the setting. The film begins in the summer months with a brief introduction of all the shop workers. In this quick exchange between them all, we can already gain a sense of their unique qualities. For example, Ilona (Inez Courtney) is interested in gossip, but works hard at her job. Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is a sleazy troublemaker who likes to twist the words of others to mean something else entirely. This helps in establishing an environment that will serve as the locale for most of the film. Though we are primarily focused on two or three characters, we have a collection of folks that bring a family aspect to the shop.
Of course, when you bring so many personalities and a compromising situation together, comedy is sure to ensue. The humor here works excellently, even after 80 years. Without the film trying too hard to create laughs, I found myself chuckling at a number of moments, such as when Felix Bressart’s anxious shop worker Pirovitch darts away as soon as his boss asks the group for their honest opinions on a product. The persistent humor also helps to maintain a light-hearted atmosphere for the film, even amongst the mystery between Novak and Kralik.
But most of all, the film would not work without a strong connection between the two main characters, even while they constantly bicker with each other. Stewart and Sullavan were good friends and sometimes lovers, and that chemistry translates to the screen. No matter how you feel about them in the beginning, it’s challenging to not hope for them to learn about the predicament they are unknowingly caught in. This is especially true in a wonderful scene between the two in a diner, just after Kralik has learned the truth about their pen pal association. While he tries to gather whether she could actually be romantically interested in him, she rebukes his attempts in a manner that is both humorous and upsetting. This is Sullavan at her best in the film, delivering a spirited character who will not back down to the man she often spars with.
Though this sequence is essential for the relationship between the two, the real standout scene of the film comes later on, after Kralik appears to decide that the relationship is worth pursuing. He visits a sick Novak in her room, where she is troubled by the fact that she has yet to meet her distant lover. During this scene, she reads a letter from said lover, which Kralik obviously wrote recently. As she reads the rich, intelligent prose of his letter, Kralik stares on with a hopeful but concerned look. It’s a brilliant bit of work for Stewart, and the silent moment is a uniquely special shift from some of the outbursts we’ve seen as the highlight of some of his other notable performances. In his face, we can see a look of a man who is both confused and afraid. He’s still not entirely sure if this relationship is worth pursuing, but most of all, he’s terrified that Novak will refuse to give it a try. Additionally, when the hell should he reveal what he has learned about them?
Without spoiling how everything comes about, I will say that the relationship comes to a satisfying conclusion. It may be surprising that I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the role of the Christmas season in the film. But the truth is that this may be why it works so well. I’m a sucker for the holiday, but even I can tell when a film is doing too much to weave the Christmas themes into the plot. Here, Christmas is in the background, yet almost always present. Whether it’s the joyous chaos of holiday shopping in the store, or a fuss over the window display, the season certainly plays a role in upholding the joyful tone of the film. It’s also distinctly present through the changes we see in the character of Mr. Matuschek, played wonderfully by Frank Morgan, who takes on his own subplot involving his unfaithful wife.
There’s quite a bit going on in this holiday feature, from workplace drama to nervous breakdowns. Not everything has aged well, particularly a few pieces of dialogue that come off as sexist today. Despite everything going on, the film holds together nicely because director Ernst Lubitsch displays an awareness of what serves as context to the central plotline. Though subplots have their time in the limelight, the relationship between Kralik and Novak is what we watch for. As a result, the film is a fascinating exploration of the complexity of people as unique individuals. Rarely has the “don’t judge a book by its cover” sentiment been so strong, along with the idea of how easily we can miss out on wonderful opportunities if we’re not paying attention. If you enjoy a nice holiday romance that is truly about something deeper (or if you enjoy the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan remake, You’ve Got Mail), this is one to add to your Christmas watchlist.