The Shop Around the Corner – Best Pictures of 1940 (#3)

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart try to ignore each other in "The Shop Around the Corner"

To describe the plot of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner invites readers unfamiliar with the movie to conclude that it is a trite, inconsequential piece of fluff. Lubitsch utilizes all the devices of the worst examples of these types of movies (mistaken identity, physical comedy, miraculous coincidences, etc.), but it never comes off as manufactured or manipulative like its lesser counterparts. Lubitsch understood the importance of populating his pictures with well-developed characters. Here he took that a step further by carefully balancing them and his comedy with a pathos that elevates the material to classic status.

Alfred and Klara (James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) are co-workers at a Budapest gift shop and, though they are both young, attractive, and would appear to be a perfect romantic match, they despise each other. What they don’t know is they are in love. This isn’t a love that develops in spite of their initial hatred of one another, but a love that grows from an anonymous correspondence. Both have answered a personal ad and, unbeknownst to them, Alfred and Klara have been writing each other. They are enamored with their epistolary partners completely ignorant of the fact that they work with their fantasy loves every day.

Lubitsch sets this story in Matuschek’s Store and populates it with a diverse cast of characters, from the nervous owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) to the dapper suck-up (Joseph Schildkraut) to the ambitious delivery boy Pepi. Lubitsch takes the time to explore the little dramas of these characters’ lives, especially Matuschek’s mysteriously metastasizing depression. We never see any of these characters at home or interact with their own families. For the purposes of this film their lives are contained by the physical and social limits of their jobs. Though it is taken to an extreme here, this is true for most people who spend more of their waking hours with their co-workers than with their friends and families.

The workplace community

The constitution of this strange, almost random kind of family is at the heart of Lubitsch’s film. At any job we are thrown in with complete strangers and in no time we get involved in their personal and professional trials – and they in ours. Matuschek’s Store shows us how work life can have all the same dynamics as an extended family. We see the women dote on Pepi and everyone’s concern for Matuschek’s increasingly erratic behavior and the way they all celebrate together on Christmas Eve. There is something touching –and true to life – about life in this store.

Of course it takes several reels for Alfred and Klara to realize they aren’t just feuding co-workers, because, like any extended family, personal jealousies and competitions can strain relationships. Once they realize the true identity of their love-by-mail partner, they recognize all the fantasies they created for their phantom lovers were walking by unidentified every day at work. They finally come to terms with the fact that our closest connections often come with our co-workers and once we put aside the cloud of professional competition, we can build true and lasting relationships.

They tried a remake with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the 1990s called You’ve Got Mail, substituting those antiquated letters with email messages. I have somehow avoided seeing it all these years so, if some of you have seen both, I would be curious to know how they stack up.

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7 Comments

Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Pictures

7 responses to “The Shop Around the Corner – Best Pictures of 1940 (#3)

  1. Jon

    Jason it’s been quite some time since I’ve seen this film. I was never a huge fan of it, but I do understand the appeal. Starting to run out of slots for the top ten. I have some ideas of what is in the top two, but we shall see!

  2. This is my personal favorite Lubitsch film, which says quite a bit when one considers he has a brace of masterpieces. Many would go with either TROUBLE IN PARADISE or TO BE OR NOT TO BE, or even one of those splendid musicals. Hence, I can certainly applaud your decision to include this among the top three films of 1940, and I commend you on another superlative essay, which rightly asserts that the ‘work dynamics mirror an extended family.’ Stewart and Sullavan among others are magnificent.

    • There is no doubt that this is one of Lubitsch’s best with the other two you mention in the mix. I also enjoy Heaven Can Wait and some of his silents like So This Is Paris and The Marriage Circle. He was a masterful director, but since he directed light comedies (though Shop Around the Corner has its dark moments) he’s rarely seriously considered alongside his contemporaries like Stroheim, Sternberg, Hawks, Ford, or even Welles. (Hawks did comedies, but he did “serious” movies too so he can be taken seriously.) This anti-comedy bias continues to be a shame.

  3. One of your best reviews, Jason. I agree with Sam that I really like your point about the way the workers have a family dynamic between them. This is a really great film, with Stewart, Morgan and Sullavan all playing their parts perfectly – I know it is mainly a comedy, but the scene where Morgan turns on Stewart in front of the other workers is heart-rending stuff.

    I have seen ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and quite liked it, but (not surprisingly!) it isn’t anywhere near the classic status of ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ and there isn’t much similarity apart from the basic plot. Also the dynamic of that film is very different as Hanks and Ryan’s characters don’t actually work together – he runs a giant bookshop which is threatening to put her small shop out of business. The sad thing is that this film is already a period piece, as both their shops have probably been put out of business now by Amazon.

    • Wow, thanks Judy. I appreciate the kind words. But it’s easy to write about a movie as wonderful as this one. I absolutely agree with you about the scene with Morgan and Stewart. I think Lubitsch carefully balances the comedy and drama expertly, making scenes like that one or the scene in the hospital all the more poignant. I especially love the scene at the end, where Morgan is obviously down about spending Christmas alone but no one thinks to invite him to their family gatherings, then he runs into the young stock boy. Their conversation and the connection they have that Christmas Eve is quite moving.

      I suppose I will get around to You’ve Got Mail one day. I do love what you say about it already being a period piece. It’s a shame book stores are disappearing. Actually it’s a shame books are disappearing. I still haven’t got into the idea of reading on a Kindle or iPad or whatever it is people read on today.

  4. I love this movie! It’s great not only for the story but as you say, it’s full of fleshed-out characters with their own interesting stories.

    This was remade as a musical with Judy Garland and Van Johnson called “In the Good Old Summertime” which I believe is a step down from the original.

    I’ve also seen “You’ve Got Mail” and wasn’t surprised that I didn’t like it. It tries to modernize the story with big box stores and email to the detriment of a local book store. On top of that I never bought Ryan and Hanks as a couple.

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