Other Noteworthy Performances: Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday), Humphrey Bogart (They Drive By Night), Walter Brennan (The Westerner), John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath), Ian Hunter (Strange Cargo), Paul Lukas (Night Train to Munich), Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent), Thomas Mitchell (Angels over Broadway), Thomas Mitchell (The Long Voyage Home), Frank Morgan (The Mortal Storm), Jack Oakie (The Great Dictator), Sabu (The Thief of Baghdad), Akim Tamiroff (The Great McGinty), Conrad Veidt (The Thief of Baghdad), Raymond Walburn (Christmas in July)
I was inclined to choose Frank Morgan’s performance in The Mortal Storm as the best supporting performance by an actor of 1940. I was impressed by his job in the dramatic role of a Jewish professor who endures persecuting under the Nazi regime in Germany. It shows off his true range, proving he was more than a comedic supporting actor as his resume might suggest. But what I initially missed is that his role in The Shop Around the Corner shows off the best of his dramatic and comedic abilities in the same film, making it a much more rounded and nuanced performance much more deserving of recognition.
Morgan plays Hugo Matuschek, the owner of a medium sized gift shop in (carefully established pre-war) Budapest. Just like any businessman, he is plagued by business problems: mediocre sales, escalating demands from employees, merchandising fiascos. His initial clashes with his chief salesperson, Alfred (James Stewart) are funny and endearing; there is a bond between the two deeper than most employee-employer relationships. It is more like a father-son relationship, replete with all the common ups and downs.
Like other classic comedic roles he’s played (like in The Good Fairy and The Wizard of Oz) Morgan is bumbling and indecisive. Here he uses his trademark mumbling and strategic yelping to great effect but without overdoing it, careful not to disrupt the deliberate tone of the film, which teeters precariously (though successfully) between comedy and tragedy. He is genuinely funny as he tries to assert his authority over employees who are largely more competent or thoughtful than he is, like when Alfred suggest he pass on investing in dozens of shoddily made music boxes. Rather than admit Alfred might be right, Hugo rashly agrees to buy the boxes and display them prominently in the store, as though he were just waiting for Alfred’s decision so he could do the opposite. (If, however, he hoped to prove his business proficiency he fails; the boxes spend the rest of the film untouched.)
It is in the later scenes we realize Matuschek’s moodiness is rooted in deeper personal problems, which he takes out mercilessly on Alfred. These scenes are uncomfortable for us to watch because Morgan has already established his character as an essentially good hearted man paternally bound to Alfred. Where is this hostility coming from? I won’t give away too much for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, but this story line gives Morgan the opportunity to show off his dramatic chops and he does not disappoint. Matuschek may have appeared to be a clownish bungler before, but we realize that those traits stem from deeper insecurities and darker conflicts within himself.
Morgan proves that he was one of the most versatile and talented supporting actors of the 1930s and 1940s with his diligently observed characterization of Hugo Matuschek. He proved that he wasn’t a one-trick pony, that he was able to dig deep and access darker emotions than some of his comedic work would suggest. He fluctuates between light comedy and dark drama seamlessly and bring to life a character that set the tone for the entire picture. My favorite scene in the entire film (maybe one of my favorites in all of film history) comes at the end on Christmas Eve. Hugo has bid farewell and merry Christmas to all his employees. He had a vague hope that someone would invite him to their Christmas Eve celebration, but they all walk off into the snowy night without doing so. Expecting to spend the holiday alone, he runs into the young stock boy Rudy and discovers that the boy, someone he never paid much attention to before, has no friends or family in the city. Hugo invites the boy to spend Christmas with him, joyfully and excitedly describing the menu as Rudy almost literally licks his lips. It’s a touching moment pulled off with skill by the great Frank Morgan.