Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
Recently, I’ve had a tough time committing myself to watch anything challenging. It’s strange because, usually, I like a movie that’s grim, long and audacious enough to push my boundaries. But recently, movies on my To-Watch list like Come and See keep getting pushed off into the future. Between, well, everything happening in 2020 and all the stress of me starting Graduate School two weeks back, comfort cinema and revisiting old favorites are my new go-to modes of movie-watching. I’ll get around to darker features like Come and See soon, I promise. Hey, at least I’m watching films like The Shop Around the Corner, one of the best-made feel-good movies you can find!
The shop in the title of The Shop Around the Corner refers to a leather goods shop run by Mr. Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). The most notable employee of this store is long-time worker Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), though also working here are the kindly Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), the duplicitous Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) and new employee Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Conflict enters into the store through Klara and Alfred failing to get off on the right foot while Mr. Matuschek has abruptly developed an unusually detached attitude towards Alfred. Oh, and there’s also the fact that Alfred realizes that the anonymous lady he’s been engaging in romantic correspondence with is none other Klara.
There’s plenty to praise in The Shop Around the Corner, but boy do I especially love how well it replicates the atmosphere of working in retail. The screenplay by Samson Raphaelson perfectly captures the awkwardness of having to walk around on eggshells around frustrated co-workers or how the most inane activites can jeopardize one’s entire social life. Just redoing a window display can cost you a chance at a big date, life-and-death stakes are embedded into such a pitiful task! The exchanges between the various employees and prospective customers are similarly ripped straight out of reality and placed into this wonderful screenplay. One particular passerby inquiring “How much is that $5 cigar box in the window?” only for Alfred to helpfully reply “$5.” before the passerby exclaims “Oh! No!” had me howling at its authenticity.
It’s also a great example of the kind of sharply written dialogue exchanges that make up Raphaelson’s script. I mean, the word choices in this movie alone are amazing. Klara and Alfred constantly trying to one-up each other with newly elaborate insulting phrases is a riot in terms of both creativity and humor. It’s hard to choose a favorite line out of so many exceptional pieces of dialogue, but I’m especially fond of Pirovitch going “Well, what else can you do in a letter?” upon being told by Alfred that he’s discussed romance “strictly in cultural terms” with his anonymous lover. Raphaelson’s screenplay is also enjoyable in how it crafts such memorable personalities for each of the employees of Matuscek’s store.
Rather than everybody save for Klara and Alfred blending into the background, everyone from Pirovitch to young delivery boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy) gets to come alive as a person. This trait is reinforced in both Ernst Lubitsch’s direction and the performances of the cast, neither of which are unafraid to embrace boldly realized personalities. Of course scheming employee Vadas walks into every scene twirling a cane with a voice dripping with deceit like he’s The Riddler. Why shouldn’t he when Joseph Schildkraut imbues the performance with such delightful scenery-chewing? Plus, an oversized antagonist like this makes the perfect foil for Jimmy Stewart, whose in classical good o’l boy mode here.
I thoroughly enjoy Stewart’s later subversions of his straight-laced star image in films like Anatomy of a Murder and Rear Window. But that kind of subversion wouldn’t have worked as well if Stewart hadn’t also been effective portraying characters like Alfred. The relatable everyman quality Stewart brought to his turns in Harvey and It’s a Wonderful Life is alive and well in The Shop Around the Corner. It serves the character of Alfred beautifully. Meanwhile, Margaret Sullivan makes for the perfect romantic counterpart to Stewart. She makes it totally believable that Klara could go toe-to-toe against Alfred while she and Stewart have such engaging chemistry even when they’re bickering in the stockroom of Matuschek’s shop.
With these kinds of lead performances, The Shop Around the Corner cements itself as not just entertaining comfort cinema but an outright great film in its own right!