The Joy of the Season in Movie Form: The Shop Around the CornerDecember 23, 2015
When it comes to Christmas movies we all have our favorites. The various big-screen versions of Charles Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol are perennials, as are White Christmas and Meet Me in St. Louis. Constant television exposure of It’s A Wonderful Life helped make this 1946 box-office disappointment into a retroactive classic. For those a bit jaded by that movie there is the 24-hour marathon of the excellent A Christmas Story.
My own favorite holiday movie is set during the Christmas season. Despite that, there are no carols, no sickeningly sweet sentiments. Instead, the ordinary lives of people and their search for happiness stands in for the Christmas spirit. This film is The Shop Around the Corner.
A 1940 movie set in a Budapest department store, the story concerns a pair of clerks. Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) has been with Mr. Matuschek’s (Frank Morgan) store for several years and now acts as assistant manager. He confides to a co-worker that he has a pen pal with whom he has been corresponding. Even though he does not know her name he believes they will get married.
Into the happy family of clerks comes Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a girl new to town in need of a job. She catches on with Matuschek but she and Alfred do not get along. At all. On the night for their planned rendezvous Alfred sees through the cafe window that Klara is his pen pal. He cannot go through with the date but he realizes he still cares about his unfriendly co-worker.
This storyline may seem slight but it actually serves as an excellent example of the unique style of its director, Ernst Lubitsch. Subtlety was the Hungarian filmmaker’s stock in trade; in his case it was known as “the Lubitsch Touch.” The Touch can be seen in a scene in which Klara goes to her mailbox. Reaching in and finding no letters from her pen pal, she touches the sides to make sure she has missed nothing. In that simple shot romantic longing is conveyed without a word.
Best of all is the way the cast works together. All but one character is good-hearted and decent and act that way throughout. The bad egg is quickly dispatched with a minimum of fuss, leaving us with good feelings and hope that love will win out.
The Shop Around the Corner ends with the closing of the store after Christmas Eve hours. There are no grand statements about the season, nothing in the way of a product tie-in. It is in the warmth of good feelings that the movie reminds us of the reason for the season: to be with those you care for. We all need more of the Lubitsch Touch in our lives. For now, we at Phoenix Genesis wish all of you a wonderful holiday season.