Friday, January 10, 2020

Celebrating "The Shop Around the Corner" on its 80th Birthday

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere of what has been called Ernst Lubitsch’s “most discreet tour de force of art concealing art,” The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

When she was asked, many years after his death, which of her uncle’s films was most like him, Ernst Lubitsch’s niece replied, “The Shop Around the Corner.” Lubitsch, a director acclaimed for his ineffable “touch” and mentor to Billy Wilder, who famously placed a sign on his office wall that asked, “How would Lubitsch do it?,” was well into his filmmaking career by the time he produced and directed “the movie most like him” in 1940.

Ernst Lubitsch
Born in Berlin in 1892, Ernst Lubitsch took to the arts as a child and neatly side-stepped a career in his father’s clothing shop by entering drama school. He had joined Max Reinhardt’s famed theatrical ensemble by the time he was 19 and two years later appeared in his first film. Lubitsch continued as a comedic actor in German films until 1920, but in 1918 he began directing. Within a few short years three films he directed in Germany – Madame Du Barry, Anna Boleyn and Carmen/Gypsy Blood­ – were included on the New York Times list of the best films of 1921. That same year he would make his first foray into the U.S. and in 1922 would return to the states contracted to direct Rosita (1923) for Mary Pickford. It was a hit and he would stay on and go on, over the next 25 years, to make some of the great timeless - and most sophisticated - romantic comedies of Hollywood’s classic era. Along with The Shop Around the Corner, some of the best remembered among them are Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), Ninotchka (1939), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943) and his final completed film, Cluny Brown (1946).

The Shop Around the Corner was Lubitsch’s first film of the 1940s, the last decade of his too-short life, and it is as rich and satisfying a film as any in his late career canon.

Based on a popular play of 1937, Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, the film was adapted for the screen by Samuel Raphaelson, Lubitsch’s screenwriter on most of his finest films. Re-tooling Laszlo's work, Raphaelson would relocate the story from a perfumery to a specialty gift shop, streamline and rearrange elements of the play, and ultimately deliver a sparkling, well-honed film script.

The story is set in picturesque pre-war Budapest during a bustling snow-dusted Christmas season. Not far from the city’s historic Andrassy Street is Matuschek & Company, purveyor of unique personal gifts. Within its walls an assortment of souls toil mostly in harmony under the anxious oversight of the shop’s owner, Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan ). Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is Matuschek’s top salesman and his most favored and trusted employee. Kralik’s co-workers include his friend Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), a devoted family man, Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) an unctous Casanova, saleswoman Ilona Novotny (Inez Courtney), the store’s clerk Flora Kaczek (Sara Haden) and wise-cracking delivery boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy). Soon a new face will join the Matuschek sales force, pretty and persnickety Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), hired on the spot by Matuschek to the consternation of Kralik, who initially turned down her bid for a job. Naturally, Kralik and Klara don’t hit it off right away. And not for a long time.


Personal stories emerge as the holiday season deepens. We learn that Kralik is involved in a through-the-mail romance with an anonymous pen pal. And so is Klara. We discover that Mr. Matuschek’s marriage is in trouble; he suspects his frivolous high-maintenance wife (think Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth) may be involved in an extramarital dalliance. And so the shop is abuzz with internecine intrigue and Christmas trade.

"The Lubitsch Touch" is not so well known in Hollywood today as it was 60, 70 and 80 years ago. What was it?

"How would Lubitsch do it?" The sign over Billy Wilder's work desk

Billy Wilder believed, "It was the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect. That was the Lubitsch Touch..."

Lubitsch biographer Joseph McBride noted that "The Lubitsch Touch is about laughter, but it is also about character and the endlessly inventive and fresh ways the director found to tell stories..."

Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote, "A poignant sadness infiltrates the director's gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch..." 

One of his most accomplished peers, William Wyler, would say, "Ernst Lubitsch was truly the auteur of his films. He created a style of sophisticated comedy peculiarly his own, as well as a new style of musical, both unknown before his time. His films bore the recognizable and indelible stamp of the gay, clever, witty, mischievous master, whose delightful personality matched his work."

High style, sophistication, wit, charm...and poignancy, it's all there, and it is delectable. Fellow emigre director Edward G. Ullmer so marveled at Lubitsch's ability to combine humor with elegance that he mused, "he really should have been a Frenchman." Every noteworthy filmmaker of his time - from Chaplin to Hitchcock to Welles to Ford - admired him. Martin Scorsese, who is intimately familiar with filmmaking and film history, has this to say, "Everything in a Lubitsch film counts: every gesture, every word, every design choice for every set, every angle, every second. He was absolutely remarkable."

On the right, Matuschek & Co. in old Budapest, near Andrassy Street
Of The Shop Around the Corner Ernst Lubitsch wrote, "Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer," and he took great care in its making. From the first strains of "Ochi Tchornya," as Leo the Lion roars, and the first snowy glimpse of Budapest's quaint cobbled streets, a cinematic fantasy of old Europe unfolds onscreen. The characters who will populate this winsome dreamscape are just as engaging. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan made four films together and by the time they co-starred in Shop, their third, the onscreen chemistry between them was smooth as silk and intense. Stewart is appealing as Kralik, the hardworking sales clerk with a surprisingly romantic sensibility.  But Sullavan has the more difficult task; Klara is high-strung, snappish and pretentious through most of the film. The actress makes graceful work of revealing Klara's softer side and bringing sympathy to her insecurities as the film moves to its finale. Outstanding in the superb supporting cast are Frank Morgan as volatile and complex Matuschek, and Felix Bressart as gentle, good-hearted Pirovitch.

A finely balanced blend of drama and comedy, The Shop Around the Corner ends with two heartwarming pairings. Mr. Matuschek will, in a most kind act, share his Christmas Eve dinner with a new employee who, like he, might otherwise have spent the evening alone. And, in one of the most gracefully written and played scenes in all of romantic comedy, Kralik and Klara will at last find their way to each other.
And now it's time to open a bottle of rare Hungarian Tokaji Aszú and properly celebrate the 80th anniversary of this Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece. Let's lift our glasses and toast "the Lubitsch Touch," so flawlessly rendered in The Shop Around the Corner.

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, whose onscreen chemistry was legendary


  1. This is such a lovely film, and I like your examples of explanations of The Lubitsch Touch. I don't think I could begin to define it, but THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER certainly must represent the best of The Lubitsch Touch. It is a gem.

    1. This is my favorite Lubitsch film, and that's saying something. And it surely does fully and beautifully illustrate his "touch" - which I couldn't possibly define.

  2. Excellent! This really is a great film, worth celebrating on its 80th.

    I don't think Billy Wilder is quite right about the Lubitsch touch though, is he? The idea of topping one joke with another sounds more like something Wilder himself would do (as in "I'm a man!" / "Nobody's perfect".)

    1. Ahhh, "the Wilder Touch"! I don't think Billy was necessarily wrong about Lubitsch and the superjoke, but it seems to me to have been just one facet of his style/approach. Which is why I included other opinions.

  3. My favorite Lubitsch film is probably TO BE OR NOT TO BE, but THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER may be the best example of the famed "Lubitsch touch." One can't deny its popularity and influence (e.g., YOU'VE GOT MAIL). I find it interesting that it's often considered a romance. There is a love story that's central to the plot, but it also be viewed as an ensemble piece and that allows the great cast (especially Frank Morgan) to shine.

    1. I'm a huge fan of To Be or Not to Be, too, Rick. The two are very different films, but both are great examples of "the touch," in their own ways. I'm not a fan either remake of "Shop" - In the Good Old Summertime and You've Got Mail.

      Though it is a wonderful ensemble piece with interesting subplots, the film's centerpiece will always be the circuitous and contentious coming together of Kralik and Klara that's powerfully underscored by Stewart and Sullavan - their performances and their chemistry. They say Lubitsch invented romantic comedy - I say, they sure don't make 'em like that anymore.