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Perf romance: Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ at the Stanford Theatre
Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan hate each other but accidentally fall in love in Ernst Lubitsch's classic rom-com "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940). Courtesy of MGM.

Perf romance: Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ at the Stanford Theatre

Christmas comes early with the soaring “Shop Around the Corner” (1940), which plays at the Stanford Theatre this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, March 18-19 at 5:40 and 9:30 p.m. Director Lubitsch is the benevolent Papa Claus, and Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are his merry head elves, bringing joy, color and humble beauty. A bit of humanism never hurt anybody, and what better way of getting in touch with your feelings than this deeply moving tale on love’s triumph?

“The Shop Around the Corner” is already a perfect story on paper. A chamber comedy set mostly inside a little gift shop, it follows the lives and loves of a group of Budapest salespeople at Matuschek and Company in the months leading up the busy holiday season. The shop hires a new employee named Klara Novak (Sullavan, Frank Borzage’s muse), much to the consternation of his best and most experienced salesman, Kralik (Slow Drawl Stewart). Klara and Kralik end up with an intense dislike for each other. Luckily, they each have a pen pal they can turn to at the end of the day, trading anonymous love letters to someone they each call “Dear Friend.”

But there are only so many pen pals to go around.

And Budapest is a small town.

You can see where this is going.

Yet what is “The Shop” without the shop workers? What makes “The Shop” moving movie art are the supporting players, the corner ripples of lived experience. As the plump storeowner Mr. Matuschek, the kind yet stern Frank Morgan (who played the Wizard of Oz the year before) directs the shop’s energies; when he has a nervous breakdown, the shop rallies to make him proud. Besides playing a surrogate of Ernst Lubitsch himself, Morgan does a fantastic job of conveying buried inner turmoil. His soothing traveling-salesman voice, slight belly and glasses drooping from his vest suggest Jolly Grandpa, but two twin disasters (his shop does dismal business and his wife cheats on him with an employee) brings out the quietly suicidal in him in a scene that features one of the darkest uses of the so-called “Lubitsch Touch.” (We only hear glass shattering and see a light-bulb smashed by a bullet, but that’s all we need.)

Mr. Matuschek’s employees are a filmmaker’s dream ensemble: the calm and caring Felix Bressart, the conniving kiss-ass Joseph Schildkraut, the brazen and eccentric William Tracy (think the kid-apprentice of Lubitsch’s “The Doll” (1919) grown up) and the meek and respectful Sara Haden (in many ways, the best performance, since she refuses to steal scenes, instead lending atmosphere like a bassist looped in a good groove; such performances are hardly heralded, even though they do the most vivid work in convincing us of the movie world’s verisimilitude). Tracy’s annoying air becomes the film’s virtue; we go from hating him (after he’s hired as clerk, Haden utters the perfect line: “You, a clerk?” and Bressart tops it: “Who did this dreadful thing?”) to absolutely adoring this pepped-up man-boy’s anarchic glee, channeled to help out the struggling Matuschek. But Schildkraut is a no-good louse, a snake you love to hate; in the big reveal, he betrays the familial bonds established by Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, so of course he needs to be purged. And yet he still sports some dashing good looks; vaguely Germanic and thin, he exudes a begrudging charm. No one in “The Shop” is entirely likeable, no one is a villainous cad, and everyone is alive and interesting.

Well, maybe there’s one person with no faults. If there’s one actor who stands in for the pure soul of “Shop Around the Corner” (of Lubitsch’s whole cinema, even!), it is Felix Bressart, the comforting Jewish uncle you didn’t know you lacked in your life. He is knowing, but refuses to let you know (only when the time is right). He is the attentive parent, friend, confidante – the anchor when the world seems to spin off its axis. Just take a look at the scene where Bressart listens to James Stewart recite a letter from Dear Friend, his pen pal. Bressart’s lost, involved look and gentle response to the love-sick fool – “Mmm … that’s very beautiful … ” – shows an Apollonian, passionately involved human truly listening to the other friend’s woes. (The fact that Lubitsch refuses to edit most of the “Shop” dialogue scenes with standard shot/reverse-shots helps establish this gentleness and Apollo-like calm.) Bressart has his own worries – he has a family to feed – but he never forgets the community, for he knows the pain of solidarity and insecurity that Stewart’s Kralik feels.

“Shop” is remarkably different from Lubitsch’s previous achievements. It is one of his warmest, gentlest pictures – a mark of the influence of his greatest collaborator, the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson. There’s no sexy repartee about garters; no piano tunes about jazzing up your lingerie. The sets (a shop, a rustic café, a working-class bedroom – that’s about it) are miles south of the glitz and glitter of “Trouble in Paradise” or the aristocratic spectacle of the Chevalier-MacDonald musicals; instead, they are democratic, ritualistically bare-bones.

The look is more Paramount than MGM, even if the feel is more MGM than Paramount. A hatrack here, a perfume counter there, the MGM sets are clean, efficient and spaced out enough so that the focus is completely on characterization. The humor of Lubitsch’s previous comedies (the German silents, “The Marriage Circle,” “Design for Living,” any of the early sound musicals) comes largely from the situation and the script – what people do or don’t do, say or not say, rather than how they say. But starting with 1934’s “The Merry Widow” (and arguably even earlier with his unheralded melodramatic masterpiece “Broken Lullaby”), Lubitsch’s pictures begin to take on a more pointed interest in the character’s day-to-day business. The tone shifts gradually from airy and fancy-free to melancholic and wistful. The cruel irony of small-world romance is pushed: As one relationship crumbles (Mr. Matuschek’s marriage), another one blossoms (the pen pal frenemies). Lubitsch’s sex games are less hyped-up, less libidinal, more monogamous, more wont to take place in real-world contexts – Nazi-controlled Poland in “To Be Or Not To Be” (1942) or a war-ravaged Europe in “Angel” (1937) where lovers and brothers are torn apart. Sex and romance don’t disappear, but they deepen in these non-fairy-tale contexts.

I’ve written all of this without talking about the main attraction: Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. They are a match made in Hollywood heaven. And it is precisely because these two awkward, incredibly fragile misfits transcend the surface impressions they give off. Despite his easy-going rapport and 22 years of experience at Matuschek and Co., Stewart plays a man with grave self-doubts, his excessively lanky body a burden and a bale. Likewise, Sullavan’s wet eyes and the nervous way she bites into her lower lip don’t speak to her subtle strength and determination. Her thin, reedy, smashed-china voice sounds like it’s about to burst into tears at any second, but it rarely does. In their exceptionality and star power, Sullavan and Stewart ooze genuineness. Think back to the café scene, where Margaret Sullavan is waiting to meet her pen pal; instead, her louse of a coworker (her pen pal!!) shows up. Listen to the quick, instinctive haste and desperation Sullavan expresses to Stewart (and to us) when she begs him to leave her table, in that pained, strained voice of hers: “MR. KRALIK! Please! I was expecting somebody … ” Each sentence has its own distinct flavor, from anger to flustered nervousness to the lonely realization that you’ve been stood up. Sullavan conveys all of this in only three seconds. It’s the magic of performance.

But “Shop” isn’t all gloom and doom, and this is still Lubitsch. The final romance scene – How will Klara find out that Dear Friend is Kralik? – is dizzyingly effective, a delirious reveal that Lubitsch/Raphaelson prolong to our frustration and delight. This prolonging is Hollywood Characterization par excellence. The story is forgotten, and what are we left with? Two unpretentious humans, with serious emotions and experiences, embracing each other in a punchline that only Lubitsch could have dreamed up.

The shop, in the end, is the real world. It is the ultimate hub around which spins democracy, friendship, camaraderie, sibling love, romantic love, family love, tragedy, melancholy, loss, suffering and redemption. “The Shop Around the Corner” is our Dear Friend; it is our pen pal. It is an ideal of a world we know can never exist, and probably never did, but one which we pursue anyway — one which we must pursue, reach out to, write for and about.

“The Shop Around the Corner” is on a double bill with Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka” – starring Greta Garbo (in her only comic role), Melvyn Douglas, Felix Bressart and Sig Ruman – playing at 3:40 and 7:30 p.m on Saturday and Sunday. “Ninotchka” was made quickly by Lubitsch at MGM in order to make “The Shop Around the Corner,” his bigger passion project. It’s worth checking out for the acting and the brilliant first half, especially the scene where Garbo laughs. I should confess, though, that I don’t really care much for the movie after that. For me, Deadpan Garbo > Drunk Garbo.

 

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Carlos Valladares

Carlos Valladares is a junior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He lives and breathes the Beatles and Motown. His favorite movies include "A Hard Day's Night," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Nashville," "Imitation of Life," and anything touched by Studio Ghibli's hands. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.