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 lauded for his ineffable “touch” and mentor to Billy Wilder, who famously hung a sign over his own desk 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 effectively 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 an 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 to the U.S. and in 1922 Ernst Lubitsch 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, 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 is as rich and smooth 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 best 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, finely-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 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 director and emigre 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." He took special care with this film, one of his own favorites. From the first strains of "Ochi Tchornya" heard as Leo the Lion roars, and the first snowy glimpse of Budapest's quaint cobbled streets, the atmosphere and spirit of old Europe come to life. The characters who will populate this enchanting scene are no less affecting. 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 both smooth as silk and intense. Stewart is an entirely appealing 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 much of the film. The actress makes graceful work of revealing Klara's softer side and bringing sympathy to her insecurities as the film moves into its finale. Outstanding in a superb supporting cast are Frank Morgan as volatile and complex Matuschek, and Felix Bressart as gentle, good-hearted Pirovitch.

An exquisitely balanced mix 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 beautifully written and acted scenes in all of romantic comedy, Kralik and Klara will finally discover each other.
And now it's time to open a bottle of rare Hungarian Tokaji AszĂș and properly celebrate the 80th anniversary of this Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece.  Let's lift our glasses and offer a toast to "the Lubitsch Touch," so elegantly illuminated in The Shop Around the Corner.

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, whose onscreen chemistry was legendary

Thursday, November 21, 2019

2020 TCM Classic Film Festival Tickets On Sale


The much anticipated 11th annual Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival is now gearing up, set to happen in Hollywood April 16 - 19, 2020. The year's theme is "Grand Illusions: Fantastic Worlds on Film" and tickets are on sale now at several price points:

Spotlight $2449
Essential $999
Classic $749
Palace $349

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Joyce Compton, What a Character!

This is my entry for the fabulous What a Character! blogathon hosted annually by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club...check these blogs for links to entries from all participating blogs.


In perhaps her best remembered scene in a classic film, Leo McCarey's screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937), Joyce Compton delivered a most memorable performance as a dizzy nightclub singer with an equally dizzy act:

She would be typecast in this sort of role for much of her career, but there's more to Joyce Compton's story than her turns as scatterbrained, Southern-fried blondes.

Saturday, November 9, 2019


Parlez vous French noir? 

Three years ago I discovered French film noir thanks to Don Malcolm and his annual "The French Had a Name for It" film festival in San Francisco. Don heads MidCentury Productions and since 2014 MCP has presented yearly - and, lately, more frequent - noir screenings at the city's Roxie Theater. This month brings "French 6," the last in MCP's series of French noir fests 'til further notice.
Le dernier tournant (1939), the postman always rings...
My introduction to French noir came with "The French Had a Name for It 3" in November 2016. It was there that I watched the rarely seen first film version of James M. Cain's scorching 1934 pulp sensation, The Postman Always Rings Twice. This was Pierre Chenal's 1939 adaptation, Le dernier tournant (The Last Turn), which, though lacking the glitter and gloss of MGM's 1946 version with Lana Turner and John Garfield, wanted for nothing in the way of style, a script faithful to Cain's book, and a superb cast, top to bottom. It was also at "French 3" that I saw the 1939 Marcel Carne/Jean Gabin masterpiece Le jour se leve (Daybreak) on the big screen for the first time and was introduced to the eccentric and edgy films of actor/director Robert Hossein. I was hooked.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Bridging Old Hollywood and New: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

This post is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall 2019 Blogathon. This year we're honoring the CMBA's 10th anniversary with "The Anniversary Blogathon" and participating member bloggers are celebrating all manner of classic film and classic film-related anniversaries. Click here for links to other member posts.

In this piece I take a circuitous look back at Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "the Citizen Kane of buddy films," on its 50th anniversary


William Goldman
It was during the 1950s that William Goldman, then a young novelist, first got interested in "the Butch Cassidy story." He was so fascinated with Cassidy, ringleader of a late 19th century band of outlaws, and one of his gang members known as the Sundance Kid, that he would research them off and on for another eight years.

It was also in the 1950s that young "method" actor Paul Newman left the Broadway stage and made his way onto Hollywood's sound stages. Once there, he would steadily be cast in leading roles in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), for which he received his first Oscar nomination, The Young Philadelphians (1959), and From the Terrace (1960).