Originally written for FilmStruck
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (’40) has not aged much in the 80 or so years since it was originally released. Whether swapping hand-written letters or Tinder messages, we still find ourselves beguiled by anonymous paramours. And while the frost-limned Budapest department store of the film’s setting is long out of date – a quaint relic of early 20th century Europe – the underlying workplace mechanics that director Ernst Lubitsch depicts with such fastidious care are universal. How many of us lead the double lives led by Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), who reserve their best and most elevated selves for their off-time, while toiling away by day in a den of unfettered materialism?
Materialism is indeed the operative word. After Kralik realizes that it is Klara who has been writing him such swooning messages, he approaches her at the appointed meeting place they had worked out in their letters, but feigns coincidence – two coworkers happening to meet outside of work (she, of course, has no idea that it is he who has been aiming Cupid’s missives into her post office box, and awaits a more dashing, albeit nonexistent, suitor). When he suggests that she has yet to scratch his salesman’s surface, she responds, “Well I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter which doesn’t work.” There is a hint of justice in the remark: what other impression is she to have gotten from a man she knows only as Matuschek and Company’s top peddler of leather goods? Hence her most damning rejoinder, in which she calls him a “little insignificant clerk” to his face.
Mr. Matuschek, meanwhile, is played by Frank Morgan, in a performance that captures all the bristling contradictions of the employer-employee relationship. He knows that to expect subordination is to be met with dishonesty, such as that of the sycophantic Mr. Vadas, who yesses him to death while carrying on an illicit love affair with his wife. Kralik, who has spent nine years under Matuschek’s mentorship, seems something of a son to him, until the old man’s misplaced suspicions freeze this warmth into a cold professionalism. Lubitsch seems to be asking throughout the film, “What kind of relationships can we expect to form with our workplace superiors, and them with us?” When Kralik is unceremoniously let go, and a pall falls over the shop, we realize that this workaday family is something of an illusion: at the end of the day, what the boss says goes, and no one wishes to jeopardize his or her own livelihood in order to rally to poor Kralik’s defense. That Mr. Matuschek’s woes begin and end with an anonymous letter informing him of his wife’s infidelity brings the story full circle – is his imagination not as susceptible to mysterious epistles as Kralik’s and Ms. Novak’s? Undergirding the meat-and-potatoes business of turning a profit by hawking music boxes is a whole network of correspondences that cut to the very heart of our innermost fears and fancies.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER has the veneer of Christmastime cutesiness, and has been marketed accordingly since its release. This sweet MGM romantic comedy, starring James Stewart at his most winsome and Margaret Sullavan at her most bright and beautiful, will surely live on forever as an evergreen crowd-pleaser, and there is nothing quite like watching Stewart keep Sullavan on the hook as Klara slowly unravels the delectable mystery that Kralik has made of himself and his letter-writing alter-ego. And yet the film would not please us so profoundly were not Ernst Lubitsch at the helm, conducting a cinematic symphony in dramatic irony and detailing with such precision the practical impediments to romance that afflict all working men and women. In short, here is a movie of real perfection, as worthy a TCM Select inductee as any classic film that I know.