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Christmas Film Friday: Ernst Lubitsch's 'The Shop Around The Corner' with James Stewart

By Daniel S Levine,
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There are two great holiday films that James Stewart starred in. In 1946, he returned to Hollywood after serving in World War II with Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. Before that, though, in 1940, Stewart teamed up with director Ernst Lubitsch for MGM's The Shop Around The Corner. It's a heartwarming film about the love right under our noses and camaraderie between friends and co-workers.

The story for The Shop Around The Corner, based on a Hungarian play called Parfunerie by Miklos Laszlo, should sound familiar, since it was the basis for Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail. Stewart stars as Alfred Kralik, the senior clerk at Mr. Matuschek's (Frank Morgan) store in Budapest. He's been sending anonymous letters to a girl after seeing an ad for a person seeking a cultured person to write to. Soon, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) comes into the shop, hoping for a job. Alfred objects to it at first, but when she shows Mr. Matuschek her selling skills, she's hired.

One night, Alfred decides to meet with the anonymous girl and when he arrives, he discovers that it is Ms. Novak! Alfred waits until Christmas eve to reveal the identity of the man writing her, after he has been promoted to manager of the store.

If that was really all that The Shop Around The Corner was about, it wouldn't be named after the store at the center of it all. Mr. Matuschek's store is filled with a host of intriguing personalities, from the store owner himself, played by the wonderful Frank Morgan (hot off his role as the title character in The Wizard of Oz), to Mr. Vadas, played by the underrated Joseph Schidkraut. Lubitsch effortlessly weaves these characters in and out of the main story, letting them almost become as important as the stars. His handling of secondary characters feels like an underrated talent of the iconic director. Like Billy Wilder, who cited Lubitsch as a major influence, he picked great talent to fill even the smallest roles (it certainly helped that MGM could provide all that talent).

The Lubitsch touch is hard to explain, but at the same time, it's so obvious that only Lubitsch could balance the humor and drama of The Shop Around The Corner. It takes the stylish, sophisticated comedy of his early 1930s masterpieces (Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living) and brings it to the masses. Alfred and Ms. Novak are not the pompous rich thieves in Trouble in Paradise or the starving artists of Design for Living. Both are members of the working class and Lubitsch shows with incredible ease that humor exists at all class levels. That this movie was made just after the biting international political satire Ninotchka (co-written by...who else? Billy Wilder!), just goes to show that the Lubitsch touch was for everyone.

It's a real shame that Lubitsch's name has been lost over time. We very rarely hear his name mentioned as one of the great filmmakers, but the fact is that he was. He managed to get some fantastic performances out of Stewart and Sullivan. It's a little disappointing to know that Stewart won his Oscar for his smaller role in The Philadelphia Story, made that same year. In fact, Lubitsch was also shut out of Academy recognition and he only won an Honorary Award months before his death.

The Shop Around The Corner is a great film, even if it gets overshadowed by other holiday masterpieces. For every holiday film, Christmas means something different, whether it be a time to redeem yourself or be with your family. In The Shop Around The Corner, it means finding the one you love and realizing that sometimes, that person is right beside you.

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