This was not a movie I had planned to watch or review any time soon. There were other planned posts for this blog (besides my work and day-to-day chores.) But then, when do things go as planned?
Some days back, I woke up with no voice at all. Yes there had been a niggling throat pain before that, but waking up one morning, unable to speak and just squawk was quite scary. Anyway, so here I was, stuck in bed, pretty much unable to do anything besides feel miserable. So I decided to cheer myself up.
Ever since I saw The Philadelphia Story many years back, I have fancied young and charming James Stewart. (Maybe, because like Tom Hanks, he always played those lovable, normal characters – believable and relatable?)
So what better than a movie starring him that spawned quite a few remakes both in its time and later (In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You’ve got mail (1998))!
And cheer me up, it did!
The Shop Around the Corner is a sweet, romantic, classic with a familiar story – A young man and woman correspond through letters, not knowing who they are, and fall in love. While in real life, they dislike each other intensely. How they get together in the end is the crux of this story.
Produced by MGM and directed by the legendary German-American producer, director and writer Ernst Lubitsch, The Shop Around the Corner is based on Parfumerie, a play by Nikolaus Laszlo. This film teams Lubitsch up with his favourite screenplay writer Samson Raphaelson (with whom he formed a team – having collaborated in other productions such as Trouble in Paradise and Heaven Can Wait) and starred James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan.
It is 1940, just before Christmas, and supposedly in Budapest (as the sign board indicates.) However, more than Budapest or any other country, this movie is more in Lubitschland (a land created from Lubitsch’s own childhood in Germany and a sense of nostalgia, perhaps?) where there exists a large departmental store, Matuschek and Company. This store, owned by Mr Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan), is the world that the characters inhabit. There is a great war on, outside this microcosm, lurking at the fringes threateningly but is not specifically mentioned. There is a distinct old world feel as the characters go about their ordinary lives, all within the confines of the store.
Kralik (James Stewart) is a long-time salesman here who shares a warm relationship with the terrifying, large, dictatorial boss, albeit with a heart, Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Alfred Kralik is a charming young man, the hero here who has won the trust of Matuschek. The other employees include Pepe (William Tracy in a hilarious role), a precocious but ambitious errand boy, the ‘villainous’ slimy, scheming Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) who is perennially trying to flatter the boss and two female employees, Flora and Ilona. And then there is the family man Pirovitch (Felix Bressart, who looks like Groucho Marx, or is it my imagination?), with the responsibilities of fending for his wife and two kids. Pirovitch is a good friend and confidante to Kralik. Right in the beginning, Kralik confides in Pirovitch about his correspondence with this unknown female pen-pal whom he has fallen in love with.
Matuschek is interested in ordering a large number of a musical cigarette box that plays the old Russian folk tune, Otchi Tchornya. He asks the others for their opinion. Kralik is the only one who points out that listening to the same tune some twenty times a day can be irritating. He also points to the tawdry finishing of the box and that it may wear off rather soon.
Matuschek is not happy with this assessment but falls in line. It is then that Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) enters the picture. She is looking for a job. Even though Kralik refuses, she manages to get hired by selling one of the music boxes to a rich unsuspecting woman who thinks it is a candy case. Her salesmanship wins Matuschek over and Klara Novak is hired.
Soon it is nearing Christmas. The music boxes lie unsold in the shop window, despite a steep reduction in the price. Inside the store, the dynamics have changed. Kralik is no more Matuschek’s favourite. He is unable to figure out why Matusheck’s attitude towards him has changed. Kralik and Novak do not get along and fight much often. This is the turning point of the story.
Kralik is ready to finally meet his pen-pal on a date. He wants to ask Matuschek for a raise but before that, they have an altercation following which Kralik gets fired. It is a shock for both Kralik and the viewers. The audience soon gets to know why Matuschek fires Kralik. He gets an anonymous letter informing him of his wife’s adultery. His wife is apparently having an affair with one of his store employees. Since Kralik is the only one who has been invited home, Matuschek suspects Kralik and the poison grows.
The rest of the story is about how Kralik and Novak find out who they really are and reconcile their ‘idealised’ romantic notions (as projected in the letters) to the ordinariness of their reality.
The Matuschek sub-plot and the trajectory that the story takes with it lends the film the required depth and makes TSATC the classic that it is. The store may be in some imaginary, ideal world but the people are real, their problems and foibles relatable.
James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart and Joseph Schildkraut bring alive their characters by infusing sensitivity, empathy in their performances. They are real and relatable.
The Shop Around the Corner, after all these years (and the many remakes) is an entertaining, enjoyable classic. A must-watch.