Monday, June 22, 2009

The Shop Around the Corner

Say the words "romantic comedy" to the typical, heterosexual male today and he might well run screaming in terror. There is good reason for this. With but a few exceptions (the classic When Harry Met Sally and the underrated Down With Love being two), the typical romantic comedy of the past twenty years has been a "chick flick." Hard as it may be for modern males to believe now, there was a time when romantic comedies were made so that both sexes could enjoy them. They often contained witty dialogue, well developed characters, and a more realistic, if a bit humorous, view of romance than most so called romantic comedies made today.

A case in point is The Shop Around the Corner. Little known today, it is actually one of the best romantic comedies of all time, with a startlingly original idea. Set in an upscale shop in Budapest in the early days of World War II, The Shop Around the Corner centres on co-workers Alfred (Jimmy Stewart) and Klara (Margaret Sullavan) who actively hate each other. Both of them are exchanging love letters to individuals, not realising that their pen pals are actually each other. This makes for some very funny scenes and some of the wittiest dialogue in any movie.

The Shop Around the Corner was based on the Miklós Lázló play Parfumerie, although it was greatly changed by legendary writer Samson Raphaelson (uncle of Monkees creator and director Bob Rafelson) and legendary director Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch drew upon his experiences working in his father's shop, the clothing firm of S. Lubitsch and a shop in Budapest with which he was familiar. Lubitsch's experience working in his father's store gives The Shop Around the Corner a feeling of authenticity that many movies set in stores lack. Indeed, he went so far to make the movie look more realistic as to buy a dress off the rack for $1.98, left it out in the sun to fade, and altered it so it would fit poorly!

As might be expected from talents such as Raphaelson and Lubitsch, The Shop Around the Corner is filled with intelligent, humorous dialogue and some very funny situations. Raphaelson did not miss a beat with his screenplay. The Shop Around the Corner moves at a brisk, but appropriate pace, with the perfect mix of comedy and romance. Lubitsch's direction is in top form. Indeed, with The Shop Around the Corner he performed what in my humble opinion was a minor miracle--he brought out a good performance from Margaret Sullavan (to me she was simply "there" in most of her movies). It is the only film I can say I found her likeable!

Of course, Jimmy Stewart could always be counted on for a good performance. And he is in top form in The Shop Around the Corner. Stewart always had a gift for comedy, and here his comedic timing is even better than usual (which says a lot). It amazes me that when people talk about Stewart's performances, they don't include The Shop Around the Corner along side It's a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, and many others.

While it seems as if only film buffs remember The Shop Around the Corner today, the movie received great reviews upon its release in 1940. It was also a smash hit. Ernest Lubitsch himself regarded it as the best film he ever made. Indeed, it was so well regarded and so successful that it would prove to have a lasting influence. It was remade both as the musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You've Got Mail (1998)). It also numbers among the various inspirations for the classic Britcom Are You Being Served.

Today the average person is probably not aware of The Shop Around the Corner. To me this is a grave injustice, as it is a classic deserving of being recognised as such, not simply by film buffs but by everyone. What is more, it would give the modern, heterosexual male a true romantic comedy he could actually appreciate!


Christopher Newton said...

Nice reminder, Mercurie. Haven't seen the film in twenty years and it's time to seek a copy out. I just looked thru IMDB's Margaret Sullavan filmography. Not exactly a stellar list. The only other films I've heard of are The Mortal Storm and Cry Havoc, neither of which have I seen and both would be hard to find.

Unknown said...

Great post, Mercurie! I'm a girl and even I don't like modern "chick flicks" -- they're almost uncomfortable to watch!

*Christopher Newton-- Cry Havoc is a fantastic, wonderful film about women nurses in WWII, and well worth buying if you ever find it!

Christopher Newton said...

Thanks, Kate. I'll put it on my 'must see' list. And I added your blog to my Google Reader. Looks good!

Terence Towles Canote said...

Christopher, it does seem like it isn't shown on television very often. The good news is that it is being shown on TCM tonight, alongside Ninotchka.

Kate, I am guessing you have the same problem I have with the modern "chick flicks." The characters almost seem like cardboard cutouts. They are nowhere near as good as a classic like, say, The Women! I have to second your recommendation of Cry Havoc. It is a good film about a subject that hasn't been covered often on film!

Aaron said...


I am a fella and greatly enjoy this film..and own it on DVD.

It is also a wonderful Christmas film with a great cast along side Sullavan and Stewart.

Frank Morgan, Sullavan & Stewart also filmed The Mortal Storm the same year.

The Shop is an all around joy!

Thanks for the post!