Christmas: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)


Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner is so uniformly compelling—romantic, witty, and more-than-a-little biting—it’s no wonder it’s served as a basis for so many romantic comedies that follow, including Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, which is a direct remake updated for the Internet age. We live in an era when the term romantic comedy is used pejoratively, but once upon a time, in the Golden Age of Hollywood, romantic comedies like The Shop Around the Corner showed us the genre’s capacity to transfix, entertain, and move us. If you’re looking for some romance and humour during your Christmas viewings, look no further than this Ernst Lubitsch classic.

This particular romantic comedy stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as two employees of a retail store in Budapest: Alfred (Stewart) and Klara (Sullavan). At work, they bicker incessantly, rankled by each other’s haughtiness towards the other. However, privately, both Alfred and Klara are falling in love with each other as pen pals sharing intimate letters through a messenger service. Only problem is, the letters are anonymous and they each don’t know each other is their literary paramour.

Mistaken identity is one of the core conceits of a romantic comedy and The Shop Around the Corner takes advantage of it at every turn. Both Stewart and Sullavan relish every opportunity to demean the other, usually unfavourably comparing each other to their pen pal, which is great irony for the viewer who knows more than they do. However, the relationship between Klara and Alfred isn’t limited to mere sniping.

As Alfred takes over management of the shop, he softens towards Klara in the work environment, realizing that so many of his issues with her were in fact him projecting his own frustrations with his boss and position at the shop. Klara, in turn, becomes surprised by Alfred’s new attitudes, and their relationship shifts into wary admiration, affection even. This all builds to a genuinely romantic ending, where the characters have grown, their secrets are revealed, and the nuance and depth of the characters and their relationship actually justifies the final moments of romantic ecstacy.

As well, there’s genuine wisdom in how The Shop Around the Corner justifies Klara and Alfred’s final decision to get together. Unlike many films where the two leads’ antipathy of each other is too great to surmount, even if each had been unknowingly keeping up a romantic correspondence with the other, The Shop Around the Corner makes clear each of their motivations for superficially disapproving of the other. As well, once they realize that they’re both each others’ workaday enemy and lover-by-mail, they are able to combine their perceptions of each other into a greater understanding of the other person as a whole, complicated being. 

In short, the conceit of The Shop Around the Corner doesn’t only offer a pretext for delicious irony and romantic mishaps, but it also allows its characters to simultaneously experience each others’ shortcomings as well as their strengths. This means that as they embark on a new relationship with each other at the end, they do so with eyes wide open. The film essentially condenses the early years of a relationship and all the simultaneous discovery, romance, and frustration into a few months’ time.

The romance and ironic humour of The Shop Around the Corner would be enough to make it a good film; that it is also a richly drawn one, with a deep well of sympathy for all its characters, makes it exceptional. For instance, a subplot involving the owner of the store, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), is heartbreaking and tender, exploring how a man’s professional ambitions and relationships are compensating for a deep hurt and brokenness at home. Another character, the kindly, soft-spoken Mr. Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), radiates sympathy, both in his reactions to his coworkers and his contentment with his simple, quiet life.

And the shop itself is a triumph of design. Almost all the scenes in the film take place within the shop, and Lubitsch and company focus on how each corner of the space reflects the various employees who inhabit it. As well, while Lubitsch’s strength is his pacing and ear for dialogue, his camera does a lot to expand the limited spaces he films in, using wide angles to play with the geography of the shop. In other scenes, he employs close-ups and subtle mirroring in framing to portray Klara and Alfred’s evolving relationship.

The Shop Around the Corner is an exceptional romantic comedy that captures the intellectual and emotional fencing match that is early romance. It’s also a gentle film, with sympathy for its characters and understanding for their shortcomings. Few films are as appropriate Christmas viewing, as it puts forward a message of compassion and fellowship during the Christmas season.

9 out of 10

The Shop Around the Corner (1940, USA)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch; written by Samson Raphaelson and Ben Hecht, based on the play Parfumerie by Miklós László; starring Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart, William Tracy.