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The Shop Around The Corner (1940)

by on 2010/12/22

“I know exactly what I’d find: Instead of a heart, a hand bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work.”

* * * *

I have just returned home from a harrowing trip to the mall, my heels bruised by marauding Christmas shopping carts, to watch The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Part of a great little bunch of Christmas movies issued by Turner Classic Movies Greatest Classic Films Collection, The Shop Around the Corner stars the charming Jimmy Stewart and positively adorable Margaret Sullavan.

Based on a 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie, written by Miklós László, this retail romance is set in Budapest, Hungary. With snap-crackle dialogue and complex characterizations, The Shop Around the Corner explores the lives, loves and pain of the fascinating people who work in the most mundane of settings, a store Matuschek & Co. at Christmas time.

Stewart plays Alfred Kralik, wunderkind,  Matuschek & Co.’s top-selling sales clerk and right hand to the owner Hugo Matuschek. The script is so rapid-fire effective that only a few minutes into the film you have an immediate sense of the people, the politics and the pecking order of this store ecosystem.

As we join the action, the employees are a-flutter about Kralik’s invitation to Mr. Matuschek house for dinner the previous night. There are jibes, jealousy and nervousness. We immediately discover as the boss’ mood goes, so goes the mood of the store.

Kralik’s smooth nonchalance and competence keeps him somewhat above the scraping, fearful obsequiousness of the other staff. Kralik’s not afraid to challenge his blustering boss played convincingly by Frank Morgan. This particular morning Kralik warns his boss away from his latest enthusiasm, a cigar box that plays a plinking version of Ochi Tchornya (Dark Eyes), a Russian traditional song.

While the other staff simper around and fawn over the big boss man, Kralik carefully explains that the “inadvisable” cigar box would cause the frequent cigar smoker to go mad with its constant racket. In this simple scene, we learn Kralik’s a man of quiet sense and his boss is a man of gusting whims. This moment also manages to establish the mutual respect they harbour for one another, as Mr. Matuschek in whispered tones tells the supplier over the phone that he needs more time to consider the Ochi Tchornya cigar boxes.

There’s another morning challenge for Kralik. When whippet-thin, doll-faced Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) comes in search of a job, Kralik is quick to rebuff her in a moment that foreshadows their witty, rat-tat-tat exchanges. Klara proves more than a match for Kralik, demonstrating in one quickly improvised sales pitch (in support of inadvisable cigar boxes), that she’s right for the job.

Like the rest of the complex characters in The Shop, there’s more to Kralik than retail sales. Kralik confides to colleague and long-suffering family man Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) that he’s interested in culture and improving himself. Not content to spend every night at “cafes and dance halls” he’s corresponding with a pen pal he’s never met about art, literature and “love …naturally on a very cultural level.”

Now he’s hooked, declaring “she’s the most wonderful girl in the world.”

Meanwhile, Klara’s also got herself a cultured gentleman pen pal too, and she’s a goner. She writes: “Oh, my Dear Friend, my heart was trembling as I walked into the post office, and there you were, lying in box 237. I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there.”

Meanwhile, meanwhile, the two clerks are fighting in RL like angry cats. First, there’s the morning dust up over Klara’s dress code violation, a green blouse with yellow dots that made her, in Kralik’s words, look like a “pony in a circus.” She retaliates by snarking at his ties and calling him “bow-legged.” She goes even further, comparing his heart and soul to the shoddy merchandise they sell, telling him his intellect is a “cigarette lighter …which doesn’t work.”

Harsh words for Christmas or you know, any day.

Now there’s just one thing these two crazy kids don’t know. But I think you do. Perfectly paced confusion, misdirection and misunderstandings ensue. Mall-addled as I am, I’ll not even attempt to do justice to the perfection that is this story-telling. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, this film deserves its spot on the AFI’s 100 top films.

If it were just these two charm-based creatures – Stewart and Sullavan – on the big screen that might be enough for a clear declaration of greatness. This film has so much more going for it. Joseph Schildkraut plays the cinched and pomaded fellow clerk Ferencz Vadas, a glib, unsympathetic sycophant who might be up to no good. There’s Pepi, the  put-upon errand boy played William Tracy. And Felix Bressart gets to flawlessly deliver some of the funniest lines in the movie.

Alfred Kralik: Suppose a fellow gets an apartment with three rooms. Dining room, bedroom, living room.
Pirovitch: What do you need three rooms for? You live in the bedroom.
Alfred Kralik: Where do you eat?
Pirovitch: In the kitchen. You get a nice big kitchen.
Alfred Kralik: Where do you entertain?
Pirovitch: Entertain? What are you, an ambassador? Who do you want to entertain? Listen,  if someone is really your friend, he comes after dinner.

It is hard to believe that the odious and plastic-wrapped You’ve Got Mail (1998) was drawn even somewhat from this pure wellspring of authenticity and sweetness. (Put that in your musical cigar box and smoke it, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan).

Real people, genuine pain, dialogue like real conversations overheard. There’s more than entertainment to be found in this movie, there’s wisdom.

* * * *

Rated G for pure undiluted Christmas sweetness

99 minutes

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