The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 99 minutes.
One of the most charming and disarming romantic comedies ever made, The Shop Around the Corner is a story of two co-workers seeking both romance & security, neither knowing the other is the one to provide it. Both believe they’ve found love with their own mystery pen pal, unknown persons who possess all the desired qualities.
Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is constantly at odds with fellow sales clerk Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). They work at Matuschek and Company, a Hungarian shop that sells such goods as suitcases and musical cigarette boxes. Each has been corresponding with someone they gratefully say is nothing like the other, and they’re both anxious yet hesitant about meeting their pen pals.
In the meantime, shop owner Mr. Matuschek is heartbroken to learn his wife has been having an affair. He first suspects Alfred, going so far as to fire him on the evening of this once highly-favored employee’s first date with his secret correspondent.
Alfred heads off to meet his date anyway, and that’s when he learns he and Klara have been in love with each other without knowing it. That same night, Mr. Matuschek’s despair leads him to take even more drastic, very nearly tragic, action.
Things come together on Christmas Eve at the Shop Around the Corner in a yes, predictable, but nonetheless appealing way.
The well-written script together with the fine direction result in a story told as much in the details as the broader scope of the plot. While often considered a holiday movie, it is an ideal story year-around with its feel-good nature, top-notch performances and timeless tale.
A good part of the charm is due to the genuine chemistry between real life friends Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. In fact, it was Sullavan who, early in Stewart’s career, predicted he’d be a star and advocated for larger roles for him. Rumor has it Stewart was in love with Sullavan, who was married, and his feelings for her kept him from marrying until he was 41.
Director Ernst Lubitsch later would say of the film, “as for human comedy, I think I never was as good as inThe Shop Around the Corner. Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer than in this picture.” One of the most popular directors of his time, he was known for his sophisticated style and use of innuendo, qualities seen even in this simple tale.
The movie has been remade several times, including You’ve Got Mail, a loose adaptation which pays homage to the original by naming a bookstore key to the plot “The Shop Around the Corner.”