Holiday Movie Club: “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940)
Streaming Alert: If you’re a cable TV subscriber, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) should have this available for streaming on their WatchTCM website and app for at least another couple of weeks.
It’s Christmas Eve, so Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and Happy New Year to those who don’t (we can all agree that the year ends on December 31st, right?) This holiday film is one of my all-time favorites, though it’s a “Christmas movie” in the same way that, say, Die Hard (1988) is a “Christmas movie,” because it takes place during that season while not having anything to do with Santa Claus or Jesus or “the magic of the season.” The Shop Around the Corner (1940) involves two parallel stories about the beginning of one romantic relationship and the painful end of another, which lends it that air of melancholy that all of the best Christmas movies have. We can appreciate the happy ending our main characters have because we know the potentially sad ending years down the road.
We start with Ernst Lubitsch, one of the few directors in classic Hollywood who was so well-known, he had his own tagline: “the Lubitsch touch.” Of the films he made under the censorship regime of the Production Code, this is one of the best examplars of how he was allowed to handle themes that were supposed to be strictly forbidden (like suicide and adultery) because the censors trusted him to use his “touch” to make the audience empathize with the characters rather than using the themes for cheap sensationalism.
(For a glimpse of what Lubitsch was capable of under less restrictive censorship, take a look at one of his greatest films, Trouble in Paradise (1933), covered by yours truly over at my Pre-Code films blog.)
This film was very personal for Lubitsch because the character of Mr. Matuschek (played by Frank Morgan in probably his best performance) was partially based on Lubitsch’s own father, who was a similarly tyrannical shop owner in Berlin while Lubitsch was growing up — the young Ernst even worked at his father’s store as a teenager. It was based on a Hungarian play about a perfume shop and adapted by one of Lubitsch’s regular screenwriters, the great Samson Raphaelson. It has been adapted several times as a film (including In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You’ve Got Mail (1998)) and even a Broadway show (She Loves Me), but none of the remakes has ever equalled this simple story of Matuschek and Company, “just around the corner from Andrassy Street – on Balta Street, in Budapest, Hungary.”
One more thing you may notice: the date the film was made. It was filmed in 1939 after Hungary had been taken over by fascists connected to Nazi Germany and, under pressure, the country officially joined the Axis powers in late 1940. So this is a subtle propaganda film in addition to everything else, showing an idealized Budapest as it was before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and kicked off World War II.
The film begins with the employees gathering to wait for their employer to open the shop for the day’s work. Already waiting outside the door is Pirovich (Felix Bressart, possibly my favorite character actor), soon joined by insolent errand boy Pepi (William Tracy), the two lady clerks, and head clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), who had dinner with the boss last night. The last arriving clerk, dandyish Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is clearly jealous of the favor that Mr. Matuschek shows to Kralik, and the rest of the employees are just as clearly wary of Vadas and protective of Kralik. Mr. Matuschek arrives to open the store, and their day begins.
In the storeroom, Kralik shows his friend Pirovich the personal ad that he answered so he could exchange letters with a “refined lady on intellectual topics.” He has, of course, fallen in love with this “Dear Friend” via these letters, but he’s afraid to meet her because how could any woman live up to the image he has formed of her in his head? The happily married Pirovich encourages Kralik to meet her anyway, but Kralik puts him off.
Mr. Matuschek calls Kralik over to give him his “honest opinion” of a musical cigarette box he’s thinking of buying for the store. Put on the spot, Kralik immediately says no, giving Mr. Matuschek a list of reasons why the box is wrong for the store. Matuschek is clearly irritated by Kralik’s certainty. In fact, there seems to be a new tension between them that Kralik is a little puzzled by.
Enter Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), an out-of-work store clerk who Kralik initially mistakes for a customer. He tells her that there are no positions open but, in the process, Mr. Matuschek overhears Kralik saying that he understands “his every mood,” and Matuschek’s quick temper flares again, only for him to be embarrassed when he discovers that Klara is a job-seeker.
Mr. Matuschek talks to Kralik in his office, and they seem to smooth things over, but Mr. Matuschek still seems a little unsettled by a poem written by Kralik that had impressed his wife the night before. Vadas interrupts them to say that he may have found a customer for the cigarette box, but it turns out to be Klara, still lingering in the hope of being given a job. Matuschek asks her why she likes the box, and she immediately says, “It’s romantic!” setting her up as the opposition to Kralik’s practical analysis. She also wins herself a place at the shop by selling the box at a higher price to a customer by telling her it’s a candy box that plays a tune to remind us not to eat too much candy.
Immediately, the opposition between Kralik and Klara is set up: he’s practical, she’s romantic, and she may well be a better salesperson than he is, which unsettles him. But we also know already that Kralik is a secret romantic, which is how he has gotten himself into the predicament of falling in love by letter. The next sequence set a few weeks later includes one of my favorite exchanges as the employees wait for Mr. Matuschek’s arrival. Kralik asks Pirovich how much it costs to be married “without the children,” and Pirovich elbows him and says, “Why fool yourself?” Kralik tells Pirovich that he finally has an appointment to meet his “Dear Friend” that very night.
But Mr. Matuschek has been growing increasingly cranky over the past few weeks, and increasingly rude towards Kralik, his former favorite. The whole shop is affected by the tension, with Kralik and Klara sniping at each other over their fashion choices. Kralik still insists that he can’t stand Klara, but her criticism of his ties worries him.
Once Mr. Matsuchek arrives, he decides that they all need to stay late to re-do the shop windows, which sends both Kralik and Klara into a tizzy, since they both have a date that night with a mystery correspondent. They both want to get out of it, so Klara decides to try and butter Kralik up by telling him that he’s a real gentleman, unlike the clerks at the other shops she’s worked in. Her flattery works until he realizes she’s trying to get out of working late, and then he’s angry at her manipulation, while she’s angry that it didn’t work.
Meanwhile, Matuschek takes a call in the other room from his wife, who has been staying out late and demanding extra money. He’s gentle and soothing on the phone with her, but we can see in his face what he suspects she’s doing. His repressed anger is part of the trigger for a rant about his ungrateful employees, who immediately busy themselves with dusting and straightening while avoiding his gaze. Comically, Matuschek is able to interrupt himself — twice! — to assist customers, only to wind himself back up again as soon as he’s done. Once again, Kralik is the target of his anger and, once again, Kralik is confused and upset. What has he done to deserve this? But Matuschek refuses to say.
Late in the day, Matuschek calls Kralik into his office and fires him, though with a month’s salary in lieu of notice and a glowing letter of recommendation that says Kralik left of his own accord. Kralik is confused and devastated, and Matuschek can barely meet his eyes, but it’s clearly over. Kralik walks out in a daze to the shock of his co-workers. Pirovich tries to stand up for Kralik, but Matuschek warns him that his own job is in jeopardy if he goes too far.
The mood in the shop is gloomy as the employees continue to re-decorate, but a mysterious phone call leads Mr. Matuschek to clear the shop and send everyone home to finish the windows the next day. The detective he had hired walks in and gives Mr. Matuschek the news he most feared: his wife is cheating on him with one of his employees. But it’s not Kralik, as he had assumed — it’s Vadas. Now Matuschek knows that he really was unjust in firing Kralik, and he has no one left to support him. He thanks the detective and goes back into his office, alone. Pepi returns from a delivery, puzzled to find the shop empty, and stops Matuschek’s attempted suicide just in time.
The scene switches to the exterior of the cafe where Kralik is supposed to meet his mystery correspondent, with Pirovich prodding him along. Kralik just wants Pirovich to give his note breaking the date to the waiter, but he can’t resist having Pirovich look through the window to see if he can spot the girl he’s meeting with. Pirovich does, and is surprised by what — or, rather, who — he sees. He tries to get Kralik to agree that Klara is a very pretty and likeable girl without success, until:
Pirovich: Well, if you don’t like Miss Novak, I can tell you right now that you won’t like that girl.
Pirovich: Because it is Miss Novak.
Kralik peers in the window and, sure enough, it’s her. He tears up the note and walks away, unable to believe his bad luck. But … he can’t stay away. He returns and goes into the cafe to try and flirt with her, but she’s so focused on waiting for her “dear friend” that she insults him until she drives him away. The breaking point insults for both of them are, I think, a little unbalanced for today’s audience but would have been equivalent when the film was released: when he warns her that she’s in danger of becoming a “sour old maid,” she retorts that he’s an “insignificant little clerk,” and he storms out.
At the hospital, Pepi and Mr. Matuschek’s doctor are waiting for Kralik’s arrival since Mr. Matuschek has asked for him. Kralik immediately rushes in and he and Matuschek reconcile, with Matuschek apologizing for ever suspecting Kralik. Matuschek makes Kralik the new manager of the shop, turns the keys over to him, and even tells Kralik to give himself a raise. They agree that Vadas should be quietly fired. Pepi talks Matuschek into making him a clerk as his reward for saving Matuschek’s life.
When Vadas sees that Kralik is the new manager, he immediately starts toadying to him but, not realizing that Kralik knows what’s going on, imprudently brags about a new diamond ring his “grandma” gave him, which we all now know came from Mrs. Matuschek. Pepi arrives decked out in a brand-new suit for his position as a clerk and calls an employment agency to send over candidates for a new errand boy. When Flora asks who made Pepi a clerk, Pirovich chimes in, “Yes, who did this dreadful thing?” Pepi tells them obliquely that Mr. Matuschek almost committed suicide over Mrs. Matuschek’s infidelity.
Kralik gets a call that Klara is staying home sick, and immediately feels guilty. But he has a more pressing concern, because Vadas has gotten on his last nerve and he fires him with the support of the whole rest of the shop, who never liked him.
Klara checks mailbox 237 — no letter. She goes to work but is so shocked to find that Kralik is the new manager that she faints dead away. That night, Kralik goes to visit her at home to check on her, saying that he feels responsible for her being ill. Since she doesn’t know that he is her mystery correspondent, she misunderstands him and maintains her gloomy air of tragedy until her Aunt Anna returns from the post office with a new letter from her “Dear Friend.” Kralik contrives to stay in the room to watch her read his letter, enjoying that she is enjoying it. Klara playfully scolds him for ruining her date and even reads a passage about Kralik that we, the audience, know that Kralik has written about himself. Klara says that she wants to give her boyfriend one of the remaining musical cigarette boxes. Alarmed, Kralik tries to talk her out of it by telling her that, for a man, a wallet is a romantic gift, since he can keep her letter and picture in it. She is almost convinced, but decides on the music box after all.
The next scene at the shop is Christmas Eve, and Mr. Matuschek is scheduled to be released from the hospital after a tw0-week stay. The employees decide to send Mr. Matuschek a little Christmas tree for his hospital room, but Kralik reminds them that the very best present they can give their boss is a great day of sales, and they all get to work.
As Klara and Pirovich work side-by-side, he asks her if he can buy the musical cigarette box instead, so he can give it to his wife’s uncle and annoy him. Klara is a little taken aback at him not liking the music box, and tentatively asks him what he would think of her getting her boyfriend a wallet instead. He immediately shows her that he keeps a picture of his wife and children in his wallet, and she decides to buy one of the “imported pigskins” after all.
Mr. Matuschek comes to the shop after checking out of the hospital and is thrilled to see how busy it is. It turns out to be one of their best sales days ever — “biggest day since ’28.” After the shop closes, Matuschek gives a speech about how the shop is his real home and the employees are his family, and then distributes a bonus to them all. He quietly tells Pirovich that he’s getting a little extra thanks to his wisdom.
But, with his marriage broken up, Mr. Matuschek has no one to spend Christmas Eve with. Kralik is planning to finally tell Klara who her “Dear Friend” is; Pirovich is looking forward to a quiet evening with his wife and children. Even Pepi has a date. But the shy new errand boy, Rudi, lives in town without any family, so Matuschek gleefully carries him off for the meal of his life.
Inside the shop, Klara is wrapping the pigskin wallet for her “Dear Friend” when Kralik shows her the beautiful necklace he has purchased for his girlfriend. He urges her to try it on because, “I’d like to see what it looks like on a girl.” Klara confesses that she’s had a crush on Kralik ever since she started at the shop, but her inexperience with men led her to try and treat him with disdain like a character in one of Colette’s novels does, only she didn’t realize until too late that the book’s character worked for the Comédie-Française while Klara works for Matuschek and Company. Now Kralik is the one who finds himself “psychologically mixed up,” but, irritated by her disparaging references to him in her last letter, he teases her by pretending that her “Dear Friend” is really a fat, unemployed man named Matthias Popkin until she breaks down in tears. He finally reveals himself to be her “Dear Friend” and, while she’s still “psychologically mixed up, [she] doesn’t feel bad at all!”
I’ve been watching this movie every year since my spouse introduced me to it, and I’ve noticed that my sympathies change every year. Last year, I was completely on Team Kralik and annoyed with Klara’s ditherings and airs. This year, I found myself more sympathetic to Klara, who was raised by an elderly aunt and mother and has very little experience of life outside of the books she loves. This year, Kralik’s teasing her about “Matthias Popkin” seemed a little cruel when he already knows that he’s going to propose to her.
I also noticed this year how male-centric it is for a romance. When I think of a romantic film, I usually think of something like Rebecca (1940) or Jane Eyre (1943), where the heroine is the focus and we’re not quite sure what the hero’s feelings are until the very end. In this film, it’s Klara’s feelings that are a mystery to us, and we’re as nervous as Kralik at the end — does she feel the same way that he does, or is she going to reject him?
The poignancy of Mr. Matuschek’s story gets to me every year and, as I said, I really think this is one of Frank Morgan’s best performances. When he tells the detective, “Twenty-two years I was proud of my wife. Well, I guess she didn’t want to grow old with me,” your heart breaks for him, and you immediately understand and forgive his actions towards the loyal Kralik. Many critics talk about Lubitsch’s “sophisticated” attitude towards infidelity, but they seem to overlook how painful the revelation of infidelity is for his characters when they find out. Mr. Matuschek is so devastated that he nearly commits suicide on the spot, with no thought for the business or employees that he loves. And when he realizes that young Rudi needs an affectionate mentor, it’s one of the emotional highlights of the film — here, we sense, is the next Kralik, now that Kralik is leaving the nest to get married.
And, of course, Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Some critics split Stewart’s performances into pre-WWII (sweet and uncomplicated) and post-WWII (dark and complicated) but, frankly, he had that darkness in him the whole time. Before the war, it was usually deployed for comic purposes, as here, but there’s something a little unsettling about the way he toys with the naive Klara’s feelings when he knows more than she does. Sullavan is not one of my favorite actresses — too fluttery, too affected — but here she is perfectly cast as the dreamy girl who lives mostly in books until she meets her “Dear Friend.”
Anyway, I’ve gone on even longer than usual, but I hope you enjoyed (or will enjoy) this introduction to the magic of Lubitsch and will be willing to try more of his films, like the darkly comedic To Be or Not To Be (1942) and the lush but melancholy Heaven Can Wait (1943), probably Lubitsch’s last great film before his untimely death from a heart attack in 1947.