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 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.