December 15, 2008

2 Have Yourself a Merry Lubitsch Christmas

A number of years ago, while visiting relatives for the Christmas holiday, I took advantage of their cable TV, with its several Los Angeles stations, to watch movies. One night a movie that I had read about called The Shop Around the Corner (1940) was playing. I had never seen a film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, although I had heard much about the "Lubitsch touch," nor had I ever seen the actress Margaret Sullavan in anything, although I also knew of her. I fell in love with this movie as I watched it. One of my first reactions was to ask myself why, when the last part of the film takes place during the Christmas season, wasn't it as well known as those two other holiday perennials Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life. The Shop Around the Corner is every bit as good as those two Christmas favorites and, having fewer serious overtones, is in many ways even more likable.

The Shop Around the Corner, set in Budapest and based on a play by the Hungarian playwright Miklós László, is about two people working in the same shop who loathe each other but unknowingly are secret pen pals conducting a romance by mail. The premise was so successful that it has since been recycled several times. It was Americanized and musicalized by MGM for Judy Garland and Van Johnson as In the Good Old Summertime (1949). In 1963 it was returned to its original setting as the Broadway musical She Loves Me, with music and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, the team responsible for Fiddler on the Roof. In 1998 the story was then updated for the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks movie You've Got Mail, with snail mail replaced by e-mail.

In the original version, the leads are played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and I cannot praise their performances highly enough. Alfred Kralik (Stewart) is the chief salesperson in a shop owned by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) that seems to sell high-end gifts and trinkets. Although Matuschek owns the store, Kralik is its de facto manager. Stewart plays Kralik as an intelligent man with a naturally shrewd business sense and quick, infallible business judgment. While Matuschek sequesters himself in his office brooding about the possible unfaithfulness of his attractive, frivolous, and apparently younger wife, Kralik runs the store, making all the business decisions and managing the staff, while officially deferring to Mutscheck's final judgment in these matters.

Kralik is as good with people as he is at merchandising. Secure enough in himself to be that rarity, an egoless staff manager, he enjoys friendly relations with everyone working in the store, all of whom recognize and respond to his wisdom and modest self-confidence. Only the vain and self-important Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), a clerk of lesser abilities but greater ego and ambition than Kralik, a man disliked by the rest of the staff for his cold personality, fails to respond to Kralik but instead behaves like an envious rival.

Kralik is a lonely man longing for romance, which is why he first answers a notice in the newspaper placed by a young woman seeking a pen pal. Kralik soon finds a soul mate in his anonymous correspondent, someone that he bonds with intellectually and eventually falls in love with. When a jobless young woman, Klara Novak (Sullavan), comes into the store one day looking for work, Kralik not only has no job to offer but also takes an instant dislike to the forthright Klara. This is one of the few times his instinctive good judgment about people fails him, for it is soon revealed that she is his anonymous soul mate. When Klara talks herself into a job in the store by demonstrating her very capable sales ability to Matuschek, who is taken with her charm and good looks even though he doesn't need another salesperson, the stage is set for much droll dramatic irony, with Kralik and Klara bickering and feuding in person at work and romancing each other by mail in their spare time.

At the time this picture was released, Stewart was at a high point in his career. In 1939 and 1940 he gave the four best performances of his early career: in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (for which he received the New York Film Critics award as Best Actor), Destry Rides Again, The Philadelphia Story (for which he received an Oscar), and this movie. In each of these roles he shows the same outward gentleness and inner strength that would characterize his screen personality for the next fifty years.

The great character actor Frank Morgan, fresh off of playing the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, plays the owner of the store, Matuschek, and he is simply wonderful in what is my favorite of his many fine character performances. His impersonation of this overwrought, insecure man driven to distraction over the infidelity of his wife is a marvel—funny and pathetic at the same time. As a businessman, the blustering Matuschek is hopelessly inept, and it is clear from the imprudent business decisions he makes on his own or when he capriciously overrides Kralik's judgment that without Kralik the business would be lost. Morgan makes this bumbling, frazzled nervous wreck of a man not only humorous but ultimately quite touching as well.

Margaret Sullavan, who plays Klara, was one of the most unique movie actresses of the 1930's and 1940's. Between 1933 and 1943 she made sixteen films then seemed to fade from the screen. Four of her movies also starred James Stewart, with whom she had acted in a stock theater company before coming to Hollywood. Sullavan had a fey, eccentric quality that is difficult to describe and projected an odd combination of vulnerability and resolve, whimsicality and earnestness. She had a breathy voice and a manner of delivering her lines that was alternately rushed and halting. She was as idiosyncratic as Katherine Hepburn without being quite so quirky. (Interestingly, Sullavan was cast in the lead in Stage Door but was replaced by Hepburn when she became pregnant.) All of these qualities, in addition to a well-honed sense of comic timing, come through in her Klara. She works exceptionally well with Stewart, and when together onscreen they make it easy to see how the same qualities in their characters that appeal to each other in their letters—their seriousness, intelligence, outer self-confidence, and inner yearning for connection—are exactly the qualities that cause such a clash of personalities when they are at the store.

Much has been written about "the Lubitsch touch," and the terms most often used to describe it are chic and sophisticated. It is true that many—perhaps even most—of Lubitsch's films concern royalty and aristocrats, the very wealthy, suave conmen and conwomen, artists, and playboys. They generally have a Continental setting—Paris, London, the French Riviera. Yet none of this applies to The Shop Around the Corner. While not uneducated or unintelligent, these men and women are petit bourgeois who work in a shop, far from the rich and sophisticated people in movies like Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. Even its Budapest setting lacks the romance and glamor of the settings of most of Lubitsch's other movies.

"In the well-mannered, good-natured world of Ernst Lubitsch," wrote Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, "grace transcends purpose." Roger Ebert, giving his own definition of the elusive "Lubitsch touch," wrote that "the comic material is given dignity by the actors." This prizing above all else of dignity, good manners, and grace is for me the constant in Lubitsch's movies—including The Shop Around the Corner—no matter what the setting or the social station of the characters. To Lubitsch the most important thing in life is to maintain grace, self-composure, and mannerly behavior in even the most trying circumstances. When the personal relationships among the three main characters in Trouble in Paradise fail to work out, all accept the situation with dignity and manage to forge an accommodation to their changed circumstances. In Design for Living, Gary Cooper and Fredric March react to their treatment by Miriam Hopkins—her refusal to commit herself to one or the other, her playing them against each other, and her ultimate rejection of them for an older millionaire—in a similarly graceful and civilized way and in the end reach a most unusual accommodation with her.

In Lubitsch's world view, both communism (Ninotchka) and fascism (To Be or Not to Be) are enemies of dignity and grace. The glacial Ninotchka is a flawed person because she mistakes asceticism for dignity. When she thaws out and permits herself to learn about pleasure, she acquires genuine dignity, and her rigid formality is transformed into relaxed gracefulness. The cruelty and inhumanity of the Nazis in To Be or Not to Be are also antithetical to Lubitsch's values. For him grace is linked absolutely to kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance of the imperfections and inconstancy of human nature.

One of the most difficult and frustrating experiences in life is to be helpless in the face of unjust accusation. For Lubitsch the proper reaction to this situation is the nearly impossible one of acceptance and the maintenacnce of grace under stress. In The Shop Around the Corner, Kralik's equanimity is tested when he is placed in just such a situation. When the private detective Matuschek hires reports that the person with whom his wife is having an affair is one of the employees of his shop, Matuschek mistakenly jumps to the conclusion that the culprit is Kralik (it is actually the arrogant Vadas) and fires him. Kralik reacts to his unjust treatment by Matuschek—in a sense, a betrayal and rejection by a father figure—with disappointment but also with grace and good manners, not outrage or anger, as most people would. He doesn't protest his innocence or indulge in self-pity, and Stewart makes this uncomplaining acceptance of injustice seem completely believable.

Kralik is further tested when later in the film Matuschek impulsively tries (unsuccessfully) to commit suicide and is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. It is Kralik who immediately goes to his bedside and then loyally returns to run the business and conceal the truth about Matuschek's suicide attempt to protect his reputation. The importance of grace in Lubitsch's—and Kralik's—world view also explains Kralik's disapproving reaction to Klara, for it is Klara's brashness and her less than gracious attitude towards Kralik that initially cause him to dislike her. This intolerance of the lack of grace in others is perhaps the one flaw in Kralik's own devotion to that quality. It is only when he is able to perceive Klara's inner grace, a trait openly expressed only in her letters, that Kralik is able to accept her and acknowledge his love for her.

One of the most delightful things about The Shop Around the Corner is the way Lubitsch creates in the atmosphere of the shop and the interaction of its employees the feeling that these people are in a way a large family. Matuschek is the father, Kralik the wise and faithful son, Vadas the ungrateful and disloyal prodigal son, the errand boy Pepi the impudent but endearing youngest son, the other salespeople in the store kindly aunts and uncles, and Klara the orphaned young woman adopted by the family. Roger Ebert noted about the people in Lubitsch's films that "you find that you believe in these characters and care about them." The family dynamic of The Shop Around the Corner, applied to a closed group of people who are enacted by enormously appealing performers, draws the viewer in and creates tremendous emotional investment in the problems of these people and their ultimate resolution.

When all the disparate elements of a movie slot together flawlessly to provide a fully satisfying and entertaining experience, that to me is a definition of movie greatness. The Shop Around the Corner is just such a movie, an impeccable example of the unpretentious artistry that the best Hollywood studio movies and the best studio directors like the great Ernst Lubitsch were capable of achieving. Add to its other virtues a strong Christmas component, and you have a perfect holiday movie.


  1. Great post. Loved your analysis about Lubitsch's emphasis on grace and good manners. It makes his movies simultaneously serious and light-hearted; the characters manage to remain self-possessed even in the midst of chaos. You can see that in 'Shop Around the Corner,' when Frank Morgan attempts suicide; Lubitsch never dips into bathos or moralizing about it, and the all the characters adjust to dealing with it. You also make an interesting analysis of Margaret Sullavan's effect onscreen. She's always struck me in a contradictory way - I admire her professionalism and talent, but something about her leaves me cold. And you can see why Stewart's character would find her annoying (she captures Klara's brashness perfectly). Yet I can't picture another actress doing this role; there's nothing conventional or second-hand in Sullavan's acting; she artlessly fresh in her performance.

  2. Wow! This is a superb review! It is very clear that you love this film and admire its makers!
    Thanks for submitting it to the Classic Xmas Chops!