“How much is that belt in the window, the one that says $2.95?”
When his last two films at Paramount proved to be commercial failures — 1937’s Angel with Marlene Dietrich and 1938’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife with Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper — director Ernst Lubitsch departed the company after a productive partnership of ten years duration. He initially planned to go into independent production with the first film to be The Shop Around the Corner. It was an adaptation of a stage play entitled “Parfumerie” that had originally opened in Budapest and was later purchased by Lubitsch. Lubitsch, however, was unable to raise the money needed for the picture, mainly because the studios would not take a chance on him with his recent track record. Lubitsch despaired of ever making the film even though he felt its script was the best he had had in a long time.
Meanwhile, MGM had a problem on its hands with Ninotchka, which was to star Greta Garbo. Its director, George Cukor, had withdrawn from the film. Garbo insisted on her choice of a replacement director — either Edmund Goulding or Ernst Lubitsch. MGM rejected Goulding, but reluctantly agreed to Lubitsch. A deal was struck between the two parties that would see Lubitsch direct Ninotchka first, and then do The Shop Around the Corner with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan provided by MGM to play the lead roles. Shooting of the latter was carried out in November and early December 1939, and the completed film was released in January 1940, eventually realizing a worldwide box-office gross of $1.3 million (a net profit of almost $400,000).
The film was remade twice to increasingly poorer effect — in 1949 as the Judy Garland/Van Johnson musical In the Good Old Summertime, and in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail. Warner Brothers has now released the original on DVD in a fairly pleasing looking transfer.
Matuschek and Company is a Budapest leather goods store owned by Hugo Matuschek and employed a number of sales clerks. They include Ferencz Vadas, Pirovitch, an errand boy called Pepi, and the head clerk Alfred Kralik. One morning Klara Novak enters the store looking for a job. Although Kralik tells her that they have no vacancies, Hugo Matuschek hires her anyway when she is able to sell a musical cigar box that he likes but which Kralik hates (mainly because it plays “O Tchi Tchorniye” and he can’t imagine someone listening to that every time a cigar is taken out). Kralik and Klara find themselves continually at odds, but unknown to each other, the two have been corresponding as a result of a personal ad that Kralik saw in a newspaper. After the most recent exchange of letters, the two have agreed to meet face-to-face for the first time that evening.
Meanwhile, Mr. Matuschek has suspected his wife of infidelity and employed a private detective to find out whom his wife is seeing. The detective implies it is one of Matuschek’s own employees who is the other man, and Matuschek jumps to the conclusion that that man is Kralik. He fires him, but soon thereafter, the detective informs him that it is actually Vadas, not Kralik, who is the other man. Matuschek tries to kill himself in remorse, but is stopped by Pepi.
That night, Kralik keeps his rendezvous with his secret correspondent and is surprised to find that Klara is that person. Not revealing himself to be the one for whom she is waiting, he tries to draw her out, but the two part after Klara makes little of Kralik compared to the person that she imagines from the letters she has received. After he leaves Klara, he is summoned to Matuschek’s bedside where Matuschek begs his forgiveness and appoints him store manager.
With Christmas approaching, Kralik is faced with the twin tasks of making a success of his new responsibilities as well as working out some way to resolve the situation with Klara.
This romantic comedy is a total delight from start to finish and one that truly lives up to the term. The film creates a little enclosed universe of its own that draws us in and makes us feel immensely comfortable as it spins out its charming story. It is peopled with likable characters who get their just rewards in the end, although they do have sizable difficulties to overcome along the way. The Shop Around the Corner is perfectly paced and has the glow of a glossy MGM production of the time. Despite the fact the film is entirely shot on the MGM backlot in Hollywood, it even manages to convey a European flavour. That’s pretty impressive given that that most American of actors, James Stewart, is its star.
The Shop Around the Corner has a lot of things going for it, but the most important one is the chemistry between its leads, James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. The two had already made a couple of films together — Next Time We Love (1936) and The Shopworn Angel (1938) — that demonstrated this, and there was certainly evidence in their real lives that the two had strong personal feelings for each other. In any event, the two seem perfectly in sync in the film and their characters’ progression from angry antagonists to sympathetic or compassionate confidants to the final revelation of their correspondence relationship is handled without a misstep. Stewart’s task is the more difficult one, particularly in the film’s second half when he has to remain silent when Klara proclaims her correspondent’s virtues. As critic Andrew Sarris has noted, it would have been so easy for Stewart to allow some suggestion of triumph or smugness to cross his features while he listens, yet there is none, only honest appreciation of and compassion for Klara as she speaks.
The film is also happily peopled with a wealth of Hollywood character actors. Frank Morgan is well cast as Hugo Matuschek and his sometimes annoying scene-stealing mannerisms get him nowhere with the other pros in the cast. Joseph Schildkraut is excellent as the sychophantic Vadas, and Felix Bressart gives a seemingly effortless performance as Pirovitch, who realizes that the best way to deal with his boss is to keep out of his way. Most delightful is a very amusing performance by William Tracy as Pepi, who manages to progress from an obnoxious errand boy to a self-important salesclerk without ever losing the audience’s favour. Even very small parts such as the private detective and the doctor are not overlooked, with the likes of familiar, reliable Charles Halton and Edwin Maxwell respectively handling them with accustomed ease.
Certainly the film, following the excellent though somewhat less successful Ninotchka, confirmed that Ernst Lubitsch had not lost his touch. He never allows the pace to falter for a moment and he seems to surround the whole film with an aura of respect for its characters and their situations. As a result, we really care about them and it is that which makes the happy resolution of the story so satisfying. Lubitsch managed three more really fine films (To Be or Not to Be , Heaven Can Wait , and Cluny Brown ) before succumbing to heart problems in 1947.
Warner Brothers’ DVD release is a full frame presentation in accord with the original aspect ratio. It may not be a full-blown digital restoration like Citizen Kane or Now Voyager, but it’s reasonably pleasing nonetheless. For the most part, the image is clear and crisp with an excellent gray scale presentation. There is, however, the occasional scratch or speckle, and even the odd vertical line, but nothing that really detracts from one’s enjoyment of the film. A comparison with MGM/UA’s previous laserdisc release reveals the DVD to have a brighter, more noise-free image.
The audio includes Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks in both English and French. The English track is quite clear, although characterized by low levels of hiss from time to time. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included and the disc is English closed-captioned.
The laserdisc version must have been the inspiration for the supplementary content on the DVD, for we get the same two main items. First up is a 1940 entry in MGM’s series of shorts known as “Romance of Celluloid,” which appeared between 1937 and 1941. This particular entry is entitled “The Miracle of Sound” and documents the advent of sound in movies while also extolling the virtues of MGM product. It runs about ten minutes and is interesting enough, even if it has nothing to do with The Shop Around the Corner other than being released in the same year. The film’s theatrical trailer is the other main supplement and a fine trailer it is, hosted by Frank Morgan and including a cameo appearance by Lubitsch himself. The disc is rounded out with some text notes on the film’s production and its various remakes. The packaging lists trailers for In the Good Old Summer Time and You’ve Got Mail as being included, but I couldn’t find them.
The Shop Around the Corner is a vehicle that shows Ernst Lubitsch in top form. The film is a delightful romantic and comedic concoction with a first-rate cast and excellent production values. In short, this is entertainment of the “they don’t make them like that anymore” variety. Warners’ disc does a pretty reasonable job with the film presentation, but the supplementary content doesn’t show a great deal of inspiration. Still, it’s great to have the film on DVD and I highly recommend it.