Review: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner


Ernst Lubitsch
Samson Raphaelson (Play: Nikolaus Laszlo)
99 min.
Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart, William Tracy, Inez Courtney
MPAA Rating

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Source Material

There are reasons Tom Hanks was often compared to James Stewart and it wasn’t because Hanks’ You’ve Got Mail was a re-write of this Ernst Lubitsch film, but because both actors have become known for playing slightly lovable everyman characters. They don’t seem more successful, or wealthy, or beautiful than the rest of us. They have the same foibles and fears as the rest of us. The Shop Around the Corner is probably the best film to highlight the type of movie Stewart was often known for.

In a small Hungarian department store, Alfred Kralik (Stewart) is a long-serving sales associate and one of Matuschek and Company’s top employees. The store’s owner and its namesake Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) thinks of Kralik as a son. So strong is their bond that Kralik is the only employee who will stand up to Matuschek and tell him the truth. All of the others either agree with every word the boss says, go out of their way to weigh in, or spend their entire careers sucking up. The office place hasn’t changed a lot in the last 70 years since this film was made, which may be why it has endured so well since then.

The balance is tipped the day an out-of-work salesgirl, Klara Novak (Maragaret Sullavan) arrives looking for work. Despite being told by Kralik that she wasn’t likely to get a job, her skills with a customer easily impress Matuschek and she’s in. Novak and Kralik are constantly at odds. Kralik doesn’t like her impetuousness and Novak doesn’t like his rigidity. So, it comes as little surprise when the audience figures out that Novak and Kralik happen to be corresponding with each other secretly and have begun to fall in love through the written word.

Lubitsch doesn’t seem to have a flare for the dramatic. The film feels like a stagebound production wanting to keep the audience entertained with the absolute minimum of style. The movie feels a bit flat in places and the plotting is a touch slow. Yet, he doesn’t force the audience to see what’s going on. He often lets them make up their own minds. So while on the one hand, he directs the film like a contract player towing the studio line, on the other he trusts the audience will be able to watch and decide how they feel on their own without his assistance.

After You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, there isn’t much new or original int he role of Alfred Kralik. We’ve seen this performance time and again. It works well enough, but like Hanks after him, Stewart became typecast, stuck in the same style of roles for much of his career even though he tried on several occasions to branch out. Sullavan, an actress I’m far less familiar with, is adequate as Novak, but there are no sparks with Stewart. She seems almost subservient, despite the frequent story clues to the contrary. I don’t quite feel a spark between the two, which decreases the credibility of the film. Perhaps had they hired someone a bit more feisty, like Katharine Hepburn or Greer Garson, they might have had a more interesting dynamic in the film; however, they wouldn’t have had the mousy quality of Sullavan, which would have made this an entirely different film.

But, the film’s major faults may have been due to the adaptive nature of it. The film is based on a stage play, which may explain why the entirety feels forced. It’s a difficult challenge to make a movie feel like a living breathing entity when it isn’t developed and expanded beyond. The Shop Around the Corner has a number of charming elements and the secondary characters, despite falling into heavy stereotypes, are quite entertaining. Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut stand out best from the rest. They manage to coax enough charm and wit out of their characters that belie the underwritten nature of the parts.

A romantic comedy fan may find something to enjoy in this film, as long as they aren’t familiar with You’ve Got Mail or one of the other less famous adaptations, which might hinder some of their enjoyment of the film as they come to recognize the connections and become more distracted in seeing how they are alike and how they differ than trying to enjoy the film as it is.

And the film has one unintentional metaphor in it. In one scene Novak convinces a large woman that the cigarette box, which the customer believes to be a candy box, will actually help control her candy addiction. While the lady is a fan of the sweet confections, too many of them will not help her keep her weight down, so the constant chatter of the candy box tune will help make her aware of how frequently she’s partaking in the sweets and hopefully reduce her intake. The Shop Around the Corner is like a piece of chocolate. While it tastes good, you need the constant reminder that you’re watching your weight so you don’t overindulge.
Review Written
November 22, 2010

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