The Shop Around the Corner review – 1940 Lubitsch romcom still a Christmas delight

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romcom classic is re-released: it stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as the two squabbling shop assistants, Alfred and Klara, who are anonymous romantic penpals falling in love without knowing who the other really is and who in real life can’t stand each other. It’s a parallel universe situation that effectively takes the dislike/love duality of the meet-cute scenario and perpetuates it through almost the entire drama.

The Shop Around the Corner is based on the Hungarian stage play Parfumerie and keeps the Mitteleuropa setting of elegant Budapest: strange to think that this film was appearing just as Hungary was joining the war, on the wrong side. It inspired many remakes, most famously the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan weepie-romance update You’ve Got Mail in 1998 – with emails instead of letters – which shifted the action to New York. (My own personal theory is that the original’s ensemble set-up, with its gallery of shop assistants and a venerable father-figure boss, inspired the BBC TV comedy Are You Being Served?)

This is the first time I have sat down to watch The Shop Around the Corner since the last revival in 2010, and some of its weirder moments struck me afresh. Modern-day romcoms probably wouldn’t have a thwarted suicide attempt leading to a two-week hospitalisation, with the patient being swiftly cured by the spectacle of his store doing very well on Christmas Eve: a weird link to It’s a Wonderful Life. But revisiting this film lets you see how ingeniously constructed it is: Klara’s romantic letters, with their grand and high-flown insistence on general ideas, mean that Alfred and Klara don’t start talking about their specific situation and so don’t give the game away to each other. And naturally Alfred is miserable and grumpy: he is being unfairly victimised by his boss Mr Matuschek (Frank Morgan, famed for playing the Wizard of Oz) who wrongly suspects him of having an affair with his wife: a crisis that is to trigger his depression. Were it not for that unjust suspicion, Alfred might be in a sunnier mood and we wouldn’t have a story: and the scenes in which he indignantly stands up for himself are strangely real and uncomfortable.

And there are more epistolary complications: Mr Matuschek finds out about his wife’s infidelity from an anonymous letter. Who can have sent it? My money is on the nosey errand boy Pepi (William Tracy) who’s always out and about on his bicycle, pretends to be other people on the phone, saves his boss’s life and finally gets a promotion. There is a sprinkling of vinegary malice from the smarmy shop assistant Vadas, played by Joseph Schildkraut (an Oscar-winner a few years previously for his portrayal of Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola): it always makes me laugh when this conceited popinjay tries to tell his co-workers a joke and they coldly cut him off. A paprikash of romantic misadventure.

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