Films I Love #55: The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)

Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner is a rich, moving love story, a very warm film despite its snowy Christmastime setting. Although the film is focused on the antagonism of the store manager Kralik (James Stewart) and new employee Klara (Margaret Sullivan) — and of course, their eventual and inevitable realization of love for one another — in many ways it's more about everything that happens around this slowly developing romance. The film is set in a small shop in Budapest, and the texture of this shop, the daily business of the workers who gather outside every day for friendly chit-chat, is the real matter of the film. The characters are well-defined but not quirky, with just hints of low-key exaggeration lending some humorous edge to the anxious, sputtering Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) and the smart-alecky errand boy Pepi (William Tracy), who really comes into his own with a chest-swelled swagger when he gets promoted to salesman. The film's humor is gentle and quiet, with not a hint of mean-spirited mockery except, perhaps, in its portrayal of Kralik's foppish rival Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut). The film continually belies the idea that humor must be edgy or aggressive in order to be genuinely funny, as Lubitsch earns smiles, chuckles and occasionally even full-throated guffaws from his careful development of these characters and their minor foibles.

What's especially striking about the film's humor is the vein of real, deep sadness that runs through the center of it. There's a sense of loneliness in both Kralik and Karla, who separately believe they've found love in the form of someone they've never even met face-to-face, someone they've only corresponded with through letters. There's more than a hint of desperation in both characters: they invest so much into their romance-by-pen, as though it represents the last chance they each have for happiness or romance. In the process, they don't realize that the object of their love is right in front of them every day, that their relationship consists of sparring angrily by day and writing loving, romantic letters to one another by night. As such, the film is about the ideal of love as contrasted against the more prosaic but also more tangible reality: it's telling that before Kralik can reveal himself to Karla, he must adjust her expectations downward by shattering the fantasy of the letters, preparing her not only for the revelation that he's her great love, but that her great love is only a flesh-and-blood man after all. Lubitsch also has a wonderful feel for the anxieties of money, for the pressures of the working class life and the fear of losing a job, and the film makes great use of the Christmas setting for its subtle commentary on consumerism and salesmanship. It's a beautiful, funny, emotionally complex masterpiece with so much heart, so much beauty, in every image and every line that, despite its modest, unassuming surface, it winds up being an almost overwhelming experience.