Thursday, November 26, 2020

Lubitsch, Stewart and Sullavan Peak Around the Corner

        One of the most perfect films to come out of the studio system, Ernst Lubitsch’s tantalizing, ageless The Shop Around the Corner provides a satisfying option for those wishing to watch one of the greatest comedy/romances, holiday-season or overall movies ever made. The “Lubitsch Touch” is on deft display throughout, with the exceptionally-crafted screenplay by Samson Raphaelson and Miklos Laszlo aiding the masterful director in providing a sterling cast a chance to do memorable work that ranks among their best. MGM’s slick, high-class production values oftentimes appear dated now, but this is one offering that utilizes the studio’s assets without over-doing set designs or costumes, thereby threatening to throw the tone of the film off. An environment is created wherein everything seems exactly right in this artfully-created Budapest, and Shop glides through its 99-minute running time in an effortless, charming and ultimately moving manner, and few films stand up to repeated viewings as well, drawing in the audience each time to observe the various plights of an assorted group of employees working during Christmastime at Matuschek and Company with unwavering, rapt attention.

         Although he had already established himself at the forefront of film directors with an unmatched and highly individual element of class and style on view in classics such as Trouble in Paradise, Shop resonates in a manner second-to none when considering Lubitsch’s output. Although he makes it all look easy, it’s rare to watch a movie that “flows” scene-to-scene in such a consistently-believable and interesting fashion, allowing viewers to become invested in each character early on, and fully sharing in their fortunes and setbacks; there’s a humanity in these characters anyone can identify with, which allows the film to leave a deeper impact on a viewer’s memory than most movies manage. Although the oft-revised material could and has come across as overly “cutesy” in less-adept hands, Lubitsch assures the story unfolds with unforced and unsurpassed technique in this rendition.

        Former and future costars Margret Sullavan and James Stewart are in perfect sync with Lubitsch’s style and each other. It’s hard to think of another screen couple who perform together in such a natural, playful and charismatic manner; they’re ingratiating and touching throughout, creating one of the screen’s most beautiful on-screen pairings. As store assistant Alfred Kralik and Matuschek’s crafty new seller Klara Novak, who have a lot more in common than either suspects, the underlining affection these frequently-bickering colleagues share for each other is perfectly captured, mirroring Stewart and Sullavan’s long off-screen friendship. Sullavan has an endearing way of portraying all of Klara’s traits in a manner wherein the audience understands her motivations even when the romantic Klara is being too high-minded and idealistic. Sullavan glides through the role with such sure adeptness it’s easy to overlook how uniquely focused and on-the-money her work is, and how hard it is to play the multi-faceted Klara’s blend of resolve and romanticism without ever making her playing abrasive or force- you’re with Klara all the way, and want all her dreams to come to fruition, as she seems eminently worthy of them. 

        For James Stewart, Shop captures the actor at an early career high, and possibly the apex of his career; anyone who buys into the popular notion Stewart won his Philadelphia Story Oscar mainly because he missed out the previous year should take a look at the burgeoning star’s other seminal 1940 work, which supports an alternate view that Stewart may still have given the best male performance of 1940, if in a different movie than Story. There’s a genuineness and sensitivity in Stewart’s playing, and he is (ideally) as romantic and funny as Sullavan in Shop and, similar to his co-star, demonstrates an uncanny ability to seamlessly blend the comic and dramatic aspects of his role. Although I’ve enjoyed his work in many films, from lighter comedy to his much tougher roles in a slew of Anthony Mann Westerns and his career-topper as the sage lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder, I can’t think of another film wherein Stewart so perfectly captures every nuance of his character, with no nod to his endearing-but-sometimes-mannered “Aw Shucks” persona he adopted in many films. 

        The rest of the sublime cast also comfortably fit into the proceedings. As Hugo Matuschek, the owner of the title’s establishment, Frank Morgan lends an intelligence to the role surprising to those who know him chiefly from his colorful and amusing work as the most famous wizard in film history, Harry Potter be damned. Morgan’s trademark deftness in comedy is on display whenever Matuschek appears befuddled or jovial, but there’s also an unexpected element of toughness Morgan brings to the part, allowing one to believe he could be an imposing boss when needed. As Matuschek faces personal conflicts, Morgan shows impressive range in balancing comedy with drama, illustrating depth and fine emotional nuances (Morgan also demonstrated these skills a couple years later via his wonderful Oscar-nominated turn in Tortilla Flat). 

Joseph Schildkraut adeptly adopts a calm slyness in his playing of Ferencz Vadas, the fly in the shop’s harmonious environment, while Felix Bressart brings a likeable gentleness to his role as Pivovitch, a longtime employee and Alfred’s ally; Bressart has some great moments with Stewart and Lubitsch provides him with some choice bits as he acts as a go-between for Alfred and Klara. During the first few viewing of the film, Sara Haden and Inez Courtney didn’t leave much of an impression as Flora and Ilona, but their low-keyed, straightforward work is in perfect synch with the rest of the cast and helps foster the idea these close-knit employees view each other as family; they’re touching in a quiet, subtle manner when fate threatens to break up the group. Lastly, on initial viewing William Tracy might come across as a bit too abrasive as Pepi, the smug, ambitious youngest of the employees, but Tracy suggests a decency and maturity exists in Pepi’s disposition and actions, underneath the more prominent bravado, and he emerges as at least one of the movie’s heroes.  

At the risk of adopting an overly sentimental tone Shop masterly avoids, I’ll state the film holds a very special place in this viewer’s heart: Shop is watched once-a-year at Christmastime (it’s my favorite holiday movie) and remains fresh with each viewing. It also ranks in my top ten “desert island” movies, and takes a back seat to none of the estimable others. I’ve yet to show Shop to anyone who hasn’t fully appreciated the film’s timeless charm and most love it, whether it be a relative’s sister-in-law who grabbed the dvd box afterwards to ensure she had full information regarding the film (I think she wanted to take the dvd, but I couldn’t be that generous, not with my prized copy of Shop) or my three young nieces and their friend, who sat watching the film one holiday season with avid joy. This year promises to end happily with what should be a pristine print of the movie finally coming out on Blu-ray via Warner Archives, who also recently released the Stewart-Sullavan starred The Mortal Storm. I’m looking forward to catching two of my favorite costars in another work that has a pretty good reputation, as I’ve never seen Storm, but I don’t expect their teaming there to match the perfection achieved by Lubitsch and company in the gold standard for romantic comedies which The Shop Around the Corner represents.


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