The Shop Around the Corner


By Niall McArdle

 Modern girl wishes to correspond on cultural subjects anonymously with intelligent, sympathetic young man.”

Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner has to be one of the most relaxed romantic comedies ever made. Made at a time when Hollywood comedies were getting faster and more screwy (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story), the film opts for ease: it moves briskly but effortlessly through 97 minutes, and it’s so charmingly played you barely realise just how simple it is.

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James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (both excellent) work at Matushek & Company, a Budapest department store. They hate each other without knowing that they are also pen-pals. You know how it’s going to end, of course, but that’s part of the enjoyment.

Sullavan-Stewart

Based on the play Parfumerie by Nikolaus Laszlo, the script is by Lubitsch’s frequent collaborator Samson Raphaelson. Lubitsch had been ready to make the film for a couple of years, but Stewart and Sullavan weren’t available. To fill the time, he made another slice of sophisticated European comedy, the Garbo vehicle Ninotchka, which co-starred Felix Bressart.

Felix Bressart and James Stewart
Felix Bressart and James Stewart

Bressart is wonderful here as Pirovitch, another of the warm-hearted ‘ethnic’ types he played so often. He gets some of the best lines. He and Stewart discuss the cost of living. He tells Stewart you only need an apartment with two rooms: a bedroom to live in and a kitchen to eat in. Stewart asks, “where do you entertain?” “Entertain? What are you, an ambassador? Who do you want to entertain? If someone is really your friend, he comes after dinner.”

It’s odd, of course, that everyone in the film except Stewart and Sullavan speaks in a heavy European accent, but it’s one of those touches that you forgive in a Hollywood film like this. It’s all marvellously filmed with “the Lubitsch touch”, and filled with European emigres (like Bressart, who had to flee Germany). Frank Morgan is Matuschek, and it’s as well that he owns the store because he practically steals the film.

In 1940, of course, the real Budapest was about to come under Nazi occupation, and The Shop Around the Corner presents a gay, cosmopolitan Hungary that wouldn’t exist for much longer.

Meg-ryans-Shop-Around-the-Corner

The film was remade as In the Good Old Summertime with Van Johnson and Judy Garland, as a Broadway musical She Loves Me, and again as You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (her bookshop is called ‘The Shop Around the Corner’). I find the Hanks/Ryan update very dated, stuck in the 1990s with it’s irksome AOL logo

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But The Shop Around the Corner endures, retaining an air of quality and sophistication we associate with the best of MGM in the Golden Age. Hollywood-Budapest between the wars has been recently recreated by filmmaker Wes Anderson.

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