The Shop Around The Corner samples a Hollywood-style Hungary that nevertheless establishes it as a much humbler, quieter picture than seasoned Lubitsch aficionados might be accustomed to. It’s subsequently one of his best efforts for this very reason. There’s an intimacy to it, recalling his own upbringing working in his father’s tailor shop based out of Berlin, during his youth.
Initially, it feels like curious casting — James Stewart playing a Hungarian is absurd and he makes no attempt at an accent — and yet Lubitsch had the foresight to understand his appeal. He lacks all the suavity and urbanity normally associated with the director’s creations. In fact, for an American audience beginning to grow used to Stewart’s own steadily rising star, they connected with his disposition since it was very much the antithesis of stereotypical Hollywood or the highbrow of 1930s Lubitsch pictures. But it is the tone that matters most.
Because, again, this is not Hungary in the flesh — it is out of the mind of Lubitsch, a creation of nostalgia, warmth, and sentimentality — and on its streets, Stewart is more than at home. He fits the spirit of what The Shop Around The Corner cordially represents.
It is not a place right in front of us but just out of reach in the near-beyond of our memories and our imaginations. It represents our hopes and high ideals, even the sentiments of hope wrapped up in the Christmas season. Stewart as a figure — a token — is somehow able to stand in for so many things.
But there is more to it. Stewart delivers something a bit more substantial than his “aww shucks” persona, which was continually teased out leading up to the days of Mr. Smtih Goes to Washington. There’s also a stern assertiveness present, ready to come out; it just needs a spark, some point of instigation.
Enter Margaret Sullavan, his perfect counterpart and sparring partner. Her breathy delivery is quiet and understated, while still somehow implying this spunky resilience residing inside her character. This is what Sullivan brings to the part herself, earning a reputation as a demanding and “difficult” performer who sent shivers down the spines of major studio magnates, knowing full-well what she wanted. As a result, she found initial success though she’s mostly forgotten today.
Accordingly, her Klara Novak turns out to be a crackerjack saleswoman, at first pleading for a job, then proving Mr. Kralik’s rebuttals wrong by turning right around and earning employment. This sets the stage for their prevailing antagonism from which a love story must bloom.
But that comes a bit later. The movie opens with all the staff of Matuschek and Co. congregating outside before the workday commences waiting for the front door to be opened by their employer.
Frank Morgan is Mr. Mathuchek, a blustering and a demanding fellow who can never quite make up his mind about the shop’s inventory. For that, he trusts his most faithful and pragmatic right-hand man Kralik (James Stewart), who has been the company’s longest-serving employee. If there are any decisions to be made, he’s the man to make them.
Felix Bressart is a fine family man and friend who always has a habit of fleeing the scene when the boss is requesting personal opinions. What he provides is quiet stability and an encouraging ear to Kralik.
Among the other current employees is the brownnoser with fine threads Vadas and the precocious errand boy Pepi (William Tracy) who does everything in his power to get ahead. With their communal workspace, a number of things come to pass. The relationship between Kralik and Ms. Novak continues turbulently as she manages to sell one of their useless purchases to an unsuspecting customer — a cigarette box that plays “Ochi Chernye.”
Simultaneously, Mr. Kralik is maintaining letter correspondence with an unknown paramour who engages his intellect on ideas of art, culture, and literature. One is reminded how The Shop Around The Corner extrapolates the axiom of not judging a book by its cover. Closely related is the fallacy of getting caught up in books such that you fail to see and comprehend the reality playing out right in front of your nose.
You read Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Dostoevsky, only to realize the people living and breathing right beside you are not only more than what’s meets the eye — they are simultaneously writing their own stories. We can’t always mold them to fit the narratives we know. Both Ms. Novak and Mr. Kralik seem to know these issues intimately without realizing it.
Because this is a Lubitsch picture, irony comes into play quite early; although it’s difficult to know if Stewart or the audience come up with the answers first. Maybe it hits us at the same time. If you don’t already know what it is, I’m not licensed to say. Allow it to happen to you.
Meanwhile, for some unseen reason, Mr. Matuschek grows cold and distant — going so far as relieving Kralik of his post in an uncharacteristic move. It’s the film at one of its lowest points. This was the fountain of all Kralik’s joy until he is so unceremoniously plucked from his position. Because we realize this job is his life, these people his extended family. Even Ms. Novak feels sorry that they must say goodbye, though patching things together might be altogether too little too late.
Sampson Raphaelson’s story kindly reconciles this conflict as Kralik and Mr. Mathuschak smooth out the situation. What still remains is the meeting with his mysterious correspondent. The Christmas season is upon the shop, and they work tirelessly to have the biggest sales in Christmas Eve history. They succeed. It’s punctuated by holiday bonuses for everyone, a soft powdering of snow, and genial celebrations all around — even for lonely Mr. Matchuchek.
This could be the end, but of course, we cannot forget the main reason Lubitsch has cast his eye on this inauspicious shop. Among many other things, it’s to unpack themes of love. The lights are low in the backroom, and Kralik is trying to get the words out, playing up the piece of jewelry he bought for his unseen beau.
Ms. Novak tries to accept her own fate with fortitude as her former rival tramples over her dreams with a reality check. Their words meet midsentence as she recites the recitations from her own dream suitor:
“True love is to be two, and yet one.”
“A man and a woman blended as angels.”Heaven itself.” That’s Victor Hugo. He stole that.”
“I thought I was the inspiration for all those beautiful thoughts. Now I find he was just copying words out of a book. He probably didn’t mean a single one of them.”
“I’m sorry you feel this way about it.”
She’s been led to believe he’s a balding, chubby fellow playing at a great romantic. As it turns out, he’s lanky and bowlegged, but not without his charms; he meant every single word. He says to her, “Take your key and open the post office box and take me out of my envelope and kiss me.” His proclamation of love stops her cold as the recognition comes over her face. She follows suit soon enough, and there you have it…
No more fanfare is necessary. We have the cathartic moment as a romantic tree-topper that Stewart and Sullavan more than earn. Even right here, it’s the same old Lubitsch with an unequivocal knack for finding the most satisfying conclusion, whether in drawing room comedy or backroom romance.
Note: I wrote this in conjunction with a series of reviews on the films of Margaret Sullavan released earlier this year.