A quaint, unassuming film, especially up against other more lavish Ernst Lubitsch works like Trouble in Paradise and Heaven can Wait, Shop Around the Corner still manages to be in the upper crust of romantic comedies — even to this day.
The story revolves around a little shop in Budapest run by the often curmudgeon and excitable owner Mr. Matuchek (Frank Morgan). Every morning he comes to open up shop and nearly every day he has something to complain about whether it’s his workers or the lack of business. His right-hand man is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) who has been a diligent clerk in the store for well nigh nine years now.
He confides in his older colleague and friend Mr. Pirovich (Felix Bressart) that he has begun correspondence with a mysterious lady friend who was looking for a partner with whom to discuss culture and all the higher forms of art. Kralik is intrigued as he wants to expand his mind and he seems to have found his perfect match.
Meanwhile, the status quo gets shook up a bit when a Ms. Novak comes into the shop. At first, she gives off the sense of a flustered shopper, but in a matter of moments, she proves herself as a shop girl, acquiring a position even without a vacancy.
Over time, his relationship with Ms. Novak becomes increasingly more antagonistic, to begin with, because she wears a blouse unsuitable for the workplace. The prospect of his first meeting with his secret correspondent has Kralik on edge in expectation, but when he cannot sneak a peak, Pirovich looks for him and delivers a stunning revelation. It is, of course, Ms. Novak.
In such a way the dramatic irony begins as Kralik understands just who this girl is, and she continues to brush him off as the stiff, bowlegged man from the shop around the corner. Mr. Matuchek has unspoken problems of his own that cause him to abruptly fire Kralik, his most faithful counterpart. But their relationship is patched up and the crackerjack clerk gets his position back and then some.
There’s still the matter of Ms. Novak because he truly does feel something for her, even showing up at her home to see how she is getting on after calling in sick. It’s in this moment that she reads one of the letters in front of him. One of his letters.
Then, right before Christmas everything his bustling and busy in the little shop. All seems right as Mr. Matuchek is in good spirits with a Scrooge-like transformation for the holidays. He even winds up with someone to share a festive holiday meal with. It seems that Kralik has a fiancee and so does Ms. Novak. As it is Christmas they both try to leave the other on a positive note, and Klara goes so far as to mention her initial crush on her colleague. This then becomes the critical moment for Kralik as he still knows something she doesn’t. He frightens her stiff about her mystery man and then reveals him to be her pen pal. All it takes is a carnation in the lapel. She gets it right then. They embrace and share a kiss.
Although Stewart is far from a Hungarian clerk, he does exude a pleasant commonness, better than any other actor of his era. As such, he has the perfect demeanor and presence to portray Kralik, a man who seems altogether ordinary, although he certainly is more than meets the eye. Margaret Sullavan seems a generally forgotten leading lady, but there is an airy, almost ethereal quality to her. In real life, she proved to be difficult at times, but here she somehow fits rather remarkably with Stewart. The two leads prove to be adept sparring partners in Lubitsch’s altogether effortless romantic comedy. It truly reconciles the lines between ideals and reality which allow two people, such as these, to fall in love for real.
Klara Novak: All my knowledge came from books, and I’d just finished a novel about a glamorous French actress from the Comedie Francaise. That’s the theater in France. When she wanted to arouse a man’s interest, she treated him like a dog.
Kralik: Yes, well, you treated me like a dog.
Klara Novak: Yes, but intead of licking my hand you barked.