30 November 2005

100 films: The Shop Around the Corner

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starring: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Felix Bressart, and Frank Morgan
written by: Samson Raphaelson and Ben Hecht, from a play by Miklós László
directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
NR, 99 min, 1940, USA

Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), a clerk at Matuschek's, is in love with his pen pal, a woman he's never met. As he arrives at their scheduled meeting, he discovers her to be Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), the fellow clerk he bickers with all day. Rather than reveal himself, he works to get her to fall for him naturally while making small inroads to undermine her ideal man[1].

The Shop Around the Corner marks the second entry in the 100 films series from director Ernst Lubitsch[2], a German immigrant who spoke in a halting English but who's films were usually filmed with layers of witty rapport. He possessed a great comic touch, but rarely went into slapstick. As a result, his films are enjoyable to no end. Sure you know that in the end the two leads will realize they are in love with each other, but you're having so much fun watching the proceedings, that you really don't care. Early in the film, Lubitsch inserts a running gag where every time the shop owner asks for an honest opinion, Felix Bressart's Pirovitch immediately leaves the room. He does this maybe five times in the first twenty minutes, and while it may appear to be a simple throwaway gag, he uses it to set a comedic tone for the entire film and give a little bit more depth to Bressart's character. Bressart, for his part, is one of those quirky character actors that populated the films of the 30's and 40's. He's the type of guy you expect to see in a black and white comedy. In fact, you have to wonder if the film might feel a little empty without him. Lubitsch must have thought so, as he employed him often in supporting roles.

James Stewart gives a fine performance here, but it's essentially the same performance he gives in most of his comedic films. In many ways he's the straight man, the somewhat injured party, if you will, and he plays the part accordingly. Stewart is aware of the duality of his relationship with Margaret Sullavan's character, so is able to play him as a man biding his time, waiting for the tides to turn in his favor. The real question is how will he spring this surprise? We have no delusions that he won't get the girl in the end, we just wonder how he'll go about doing it. Sullavan, on the other hand, has to play a woman in love with two different men on two completely different levels, who just happen to be the same man. Suffice to say, she drew the more difficult assignment. She does a fine job, as you'd expect from someone in Lubitsch's capable hands.

The more I think about it, the more strange it seems that this film set in Budapest has obviously not ventured far from a studio back lot. Everyone speaks english (even if all the signs are in another language), we only see a couple of basic sets, and there isn't anyone who seems to be anything but an average American. Yet we don't question the setting. Could that be what they mean by "the Lubitsch touch"?[3]

[1] If all this sounds familiar, it's because it was recently remade as that dreadful Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy You've Got Mail (1998). Have no fear, the original is infinitely more enjoyable. So, if your significant other wants to watch You've Got Mail, suggest this instead. It's the same premise, minus all the rubbish, and you won't feel as if you're sacrificing any film snob integrity.

[2] The other being Ninotchka (1939), the Greta Garbo vehicle he filmed while waiting for his cast to become available for this film.

[3] Obviously not, but it is late and I felt like ending on a somewhat clever note.


Derek said...

I agree completely about the strangeness of setting the movie in Hungary...but it does make it uniquely Lubitschian. This film has always reminded of To Be or Not to Be (1942) in its depiction of a foreign city. Great review!