Friday, April 2, 2010

Film #20: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch (also directed Ninotchka)

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):
In Hungary, an intelligent, sensitive & semi-stoic leather goods salesman finds love with mystery pen pal.

The Story (a detailed blow-by-blow, with spoilers. Fair warning):

In Budapest, Hungary, Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) is the top sales clerk at a high-end leather goods store. He is bright, pleasant, and the only man in the store with the ability and backbone to stand up to the quixotic nature of Mr. Matuschek, the owner of the shop. Kralik is excited about a running pen-pal exchange with an anonymous woman who seems to share his love of literature and romantic ideals, and with whom he soon plans to meet.

Just as we learn all of this, Mr. Matuschek hires the attractive and somewhat desperate Miss Klara Novak as a new sales clerk, much to the chagrin of the finance-conscious Kralik. Due to this rocky beginning, Novak and Kralik remain icy towards one another, never missing a chance to jab one another in their similarly passive-aggressive ways.

At the store, owner Matuschek begins to act ever-more erratically, eventually letting Kralik, his best and longest-standing worker, go. That evening, when a downtrodden Kralik is meant to have his fateful first meeting with his mysterious correspondent, he learns that she is, indeed, Miss Novak. Rather than completely reveal himself, he talks with her, picks her brain, dances around the truth, and leaves her at the café to wonder when her knight will appear.

The three most prominent players, left to right: Novak, Kralik, and Matuschek

At the same time back at the store, we learn the cause of Matuschek’s anxiety. He has suspected his wife of having an affair with Kralik. He learns from a detective that he has been half right: she has been having an affair with one of this employees, but with the obviously unscrupulous Vadas rather than the forthright Kralik. Upon learning of his grievous mistake, Matuschek attempts suicide, only to be stopped by the store’s delivery boy, Pepe.

Matuschik goes to convalesce in a hospital and rehires Kralik as the acting manager of the store, just in time for the Christmas Eve shopping blitz. Kralik gladly returns and fires Vadas with impunity. Afterwards, Kralek visits Miss Novak, who has become “psychologically ill” as a result of the crushing silence from her pen pal. That is, until a letter appears once again and puts her soul at ease.

Christams Eve arrives and Kralik sees the store to its greatest sales day in history. As the evening closes, he takes the chance to coyly tease Miss Novak about her dreamed of “fiancĂ©.” After misleading her for a few minutes, he finally reveals himself as her mystery correspondent, and they fall into each others’ arms.

Merry Christmas, every one!

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing & before any research):
This film was like aloe on my movie-watching soul.

I was skeptical before watching, however. The summary of the film pointed out how it had been remade recently into the rom-com You've Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Upon seeing this, my expectations went off a cliff.

I really needn't have worried, though. A mere ten minutes into the film, I realized that this was going to be the type of Jimmy Stewart movie that I liked. While I'm not a major fan of his "American boy next door" roles (The Philadelphia Story, It's a Wonderful Life), I have found that I like him best when he is a bit dark and edgy, such as in the Hitchcock films Rope or Vertigo. In The Shop Around the Corner, he plays a really pleasing mid-point between the two. Alfred Kralik is a cool and effective intellectual at work, and a soft romantic outside of the workplace. The character is very well-rounded and Stewart plays him perfectly.

The interplay between Kralik and Novak is often scathing and humorous, in well-balanced turns.

This might be one of the best Christmas movies I've ever seen. Not that Christmas is the focal point, but the grand finale on Christmas Eve left me with the feeling that I presume one is meant to get at the end of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", yet I have never felt for that age-old classic. There are moments of playfulness, romance, and a touch of darkness through which you must travel in order to come into the light and feel a sense of relief and joy at the end. The fact that the setting is the far-off country of Hungary, and that it is a 40s black-and-white only add to the sense that you're watching a fairy tale unfold.

Back to the acting. Stewart was certainly the stand-out. Maragaet Sullavan does admirably, as she's certainly pretty enough and handles the character well, though I feel that there was nothing singular about her performance. The supporting cast is fine, if all rather 1- or 2-dimensional, but let's face it - that's the way most films were back in the day. Exhibit A in this film is the Ferencz Vadas character, an obvious scumbag with zero redeeming qualities. It doesn't take a very astute viewer to figure out that he's "the bad guy." I guess every fairytale needs a bald-faced villain.

I suppose if I had to narrow what I liked about the movie so much down to a word, it would be "balanced." The serious parts aren't too serious as to weigh down the lightheartedness of the tale, the clever parts aren't trying to be too clever (a la His Girl Friday), and the more obvious moments of humor never spill over into the absurd or slapstick.

The Shop Around the Corner is not a trailblazing masterpiece. It is not Citizen Kane, The Seven Samurai, or The Godfather. It won't challenge any of your core values, open new worlds to you, or dazzle you with artistic creativity. It is, however, a masterfully crafted and executed film that is a pleasure to watch. I'll certainly look forward to next winter, when December rolls in and the snow begins to fall, as I now have a new film to add to the short list of solid Christmas movies that complement the season.

Nearing the end of the film, Kralik's feelings start to blossom into touching sorrow, though Novak still doesn't know who her admirer really is.

Take 2; or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

The Shop Around the Corner, being a fairly fancy-free movie devoid of literary sophistication, does not demand a ton of analysis and research. In fact, the original 1940 TIME magazine review uses some amazingly accurate word choices in describing the film. I especially like this trifecta of adjective phrases: "...completely unimportant, highly entertaining, expertly carpentered...". The other gem of the review is, "James Stewart walks through the amiable business of being James Stewart." They certainly had that one nailed - and that was a really early "James" Stewart role.

Richard Schickel's more contemporary review echoes the sentiments of the movie's lack of any grand depth or meaning. Yet he, too, is under the film's spell.

Of final note is just how timeless this admittedly "unimportant" film has been. Originally a play called Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, it has been remade and retold in the form of The Shop Around the Corner (1940), the musical film In the Good Old Summertime (1949), the musical She Loves Me (1963 and 1993), and the more familiar You've Got Mail (1999). Like any good dish, it seemingly never gets old.

That's a wrap. 20 films down. 85 to go.

Coming Soon: Pinocchio (1940):

What better way to usher in the very first color film on the list than a classic Walt Disney film, I ask you? This one should be interesting...

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.