THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
Museum of the Moving Image
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Friday, December 2, $12, 7:00, and Saturday, December 3, $12, 2:00
Series runs through December 24
Jimmy Stewart’s most famous Christmas movie might be It’s a Wonderful Life, but that doesn’t mean it’s his best. That distinction belongs to the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch black-and-white romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, which is screening December 2 and 3 in the Museum of the Moving Image series “See It Big! Holiday Films.” (It’s a Wonderful Life is also being shown December 3.) Stewart stars as Alfred Kralik, a serious-minded longtime clerk at the Budapest gift shop Matuschek & Co., serving as the right-hand man to owner Hugo Matuschek (The Wizard of Oz’s Frank Morgan), who relies on his star employee’s honesty and expertise. Also working at the store is Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), a timid family man who hides every time Mr. Matuschek asks for an opinion; the shy Flora Kaczek (Sara Haden); the brash, ambitious delivery boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy); and the self-involved would-be bon vivant Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut). When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) shows up looking for a job, Kralik tries to quickly dismiss her, but she ends up charming Mr. Matuschek and getting hired. She and Kralik, her direct superior, bicker constantly, each one hoping that a romantic pen pal will make their dreary lives much brighter, especially as Christmas approaches. But little do they know the love letters that they are so carefully crafting are actually to each other, their secretive literary relationship a far cry from their actual daily one.
The Shop Around the Corner is based on Miklós László’s 1937 play, Parfumerie, and it very much has a claustrophobic feel, as events occur primarily in the small store. Stewart and Sullavan channel some of that Cary Grant / Irene Dunne magic as they go about their private and professional business, even if they don’t even make attempts at Hungarian accents. (Neither does Morgan, who gives one of his finest performances.) “There might be a lot we don’t know about each other. You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth,” Mr. Kralik says to Miss Novak, who replies, “Well, I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a handbag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter . . . which doesn’t work.” The central object in the shop is a cigarette box that plays the Eastern European folk song “Ochi Tchornya” every time it is opened; while Mr. Kralik thinks that smokers will tire of hearing the same tune over and over, Miss Novak convinces a customer that it is a candy box and that the repetition of the song will turn her away from opening the box again and again to eat more; meanwhile, Mr. Matuschek just wants to sell the darn things, delineating the three characters’ approach to life in general. Written by Samson Raphaelson, who adapted other plays and novels for Lubitsch, including The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, and Heaven Can Wait, The Shop Around the Corner is a sweetly innocent film with just the right amount of edginess, a fun frolic through human nature and love, a fanciful confection set in the rococo interior of a shop selling little luxuries in a now-lost Hungary between the world wars. The story was also turned into the 1949 musical In the Good Old Summertime with Van Johnson and Judy Garland (Johnson also appeared in a 1945 radio version with Phyllis Thaxter) and Nora Ephron’s popular 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the latter playing a woman who runs a New York City bookstore called the Shop Around the Corner. “See It Big! Holiday Films” continues through Christmas Eve with such other seasonal flicks as Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again, and Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis.