Friday, December 2, 2011

Charm for the Holidays in "The Shop Around the Corner"

When you think Jimmy Stewart and holiday movies, you probably come up with "It's a Wonderful Life" first and foremost. But there is another choice. There's Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 charmer "The Shop Around the Corner."

This one is less sentimental, but still warm and sweet, more romantic, more Continental. I mean, when was the last time you watched a movie set in Budapest, where the holiday cash registers are ringing up pengő and the shop's cigarette boxes play "Ochi Chyornye"?

"The Shop Around the Corner" is based on a 1937 play called "Parfumerie" written by Miklós László (also known as Nikolaus Laszlo or Laszlo Miklos in some credits.) The play was, obviously, set in a perfume store, while screenwriter Samson Raphaelson turned it into more of a gift shop, selling leather goods, cigarette lighters and music boxes, for "The Shop Around the Corner."

László's play has been adapted and reimagined more than once, with "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949) moving its pen-pal lovers to turn-of-the-century Chicago and a music shop (offering star Judy Garland a chance to sing), "You've Got Mail" (1998) with Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, computers and rival bookstores, and the Broadway musical "She Loves Me," which keeps the same basic characters and plot while adding a lovely Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick score.

Of those adaptations, "The Shop Around the Corner" and "She Loves Me" are at the top of the class for me. Which is why it's such good news to hear that the Normal Theater is offering "The Shop Around the Corner," in glorious black and white, on screen tomorrow and Sunday nights at 7 pm. (Now we just need one of our local musical theater companies to take on "She Loves Me," which they haven't, in my memory. Why not?)

For now, "The Shop Around the Corner" will have to be enough. It's plenty, really. Director Lubitsch is known for the light, mischievous tone of his films, for all those clever "Lubitsch touches," and he delivers beautifully with this film. James Stewart is at his best as hard-working, no-nonsense Alfred Kralik, who has a romantic side he hides very well at work. Looking tall and lanky in a spiffy 40s wardrobe, Stewart has never been more natural or more appealing. Margaret Sullavan (famous for being married to Henry Fonda for a couple of months as well as being one of the subjects of "Haywire," a biographical tell-all by Sullavan's daughter Brooke Hayward) is less attractive, to me, but she and her throaty voice and impish ways do manage to create an interesting heroine. And, again, she brings out the best in Stewart.

The supporting cast is quite marvelous, chock full of character actors you can never see enough of, with the wonderful Felix Bressart bringing life to every scene he's in, Joseph Schildkraut doing excellent work as oily villain and ladies man Vadas, and Frank Morgan quite touching as Mr. Matuschek, the mercurial owner of the shop. Morgan shows he more dramatic chops than you might expect if all you know him from is "The Wizard of Oz," giving "The Shop Around the Corner" a good part of its heart and soul.

"The Shop Around the Corner" is, yes, a romance, with a light, charming tone carried along by snow falling on the street in Budapest, pen pals who share their innermost thoughts and fall in love through words, and the plot device that keeps them prickly in person but still clearly meant for each other. But there is a message here about friendship and connection, too, about how life outside the walls of Matuschek and Co. may disappoint, but the family of co-workers inside can still be there when Mr. Matuschek needs them. It makes for a lovely holiday message.

You may be able to catch "The Shop Around the Corner" somewhere on your television dial this Christmas season, but that is no substitute for seeing it at the Normal Theater this weekend. So.. 7 pm. Saturday and Sunday. It can be your gift to yourself.

There's also a fun trailer for the movie, with a little cameo at the end by Mr. Lubitsch himself, available on youtube.


  1. Julie, with all our conversations about this movie, I don't think I ever knew that you weren't that crazy about Margaret Sullavan. I'll confess she charms me just like she's supposed to; I find her distinctive voice and manner and looks very appealing. I'm in total agreement about James Stewart in this -- he's such a deft and delicate romantic lead, it's almost a different person compared to his later aw-shucks persona. So the two of them make quite a formidable couple for a romantic comedy, for me.

    The Roundabout Theatre in NYC is presenting a one-night benefit performance of "She Loves Me" this Monday as a fundraiser. With Josh Radnor and the ubiquitous Kelli O'Hara in the leading roles, Gavin Creel (replacing Steven Pasquale who replaced Cheyenne Jackson) as the ladies'-man, Jane Krakowski as the object of his interest, Michael McGrath as the employee who doesn't want to be noticed, and Victor Garber as the boss.

  2. Yeah, Margaret Sullavan hasn't held up well for me. I don't think I thought much about her when I saw the movie when I was younger, because I found the plot and ambiance so delightful. Now Klara seems really mean and petty early on, while Kralik is pretty nice to her. She explains that at the last possible moment (reading a novel about a woman in the Comedie Francaise) and that helped a little, but otherwise, Klara seemed rude and unpleasant for no reason, and I didn't like Margaret Sullavan's persona well enough to get past that like I might've for Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck.

    I also noticed how closely "She Loves Me" keeps to the same character types and plot lines, with the exception of giving Ilona something to do. I've seen "Parfumerie," and I know a lot of it is the same there, too, but I don't remember if Ilona got more story or not. I think Ilona is the only one whose name stays the same through "Shop" and "She Loves Me." Matuschek/Maraczek is close, but not exact.

  3. You've seen "Parfumerie"? I've always wanted to, and never had the chance.

    I do think "She Loves Me" does a bit better justifying the antagonism, and having it go both ways -- based on almost nothing, just the sort of initial passing irritation that can get get blown out of proportion and develop into a feud. Georg resents that Maraczek hired Amalia over his objections, makes a remark, she responds, and so it goes.

  4. University of Illinois did it in summer rep a few years ago. Steve Keen played Maraczek. At least I think he was Maraczek, not Matuschek. Maybe he will stop by and tell us!

    They did it with seating on three sides, I think, and had this adorable little jewel box of a set. Or perfume box of a set. Lots of pink and black, as I recall.

    I went to see if I had a copy of the review and I do. It was part of U of I's Summerfest in 2004. The owner of the parfumerie was Mr. Hammerschmidt (played by Steve), and the couple was Albert and Amalia, with Arpad and Sipos working there. My review also says that James Berton Harris, who was running Summerfest at U of I then, had a terrible time finding an English translation of "Parfumerie," pretty much looking all over the world, and then he ended up back at U of I in its Rare Book and Special Collections Library, where Sam Raphaelson had donated a translated copy to the university with his papers.

    So, anyway, I'm still saying thanks to James Berton Harris (who also did the costumes for that production) for keeping up his search. Now that I re-read the notes, it seems there aren't that many of us who've seen "Parfumerie"!

  5. Wow, my thanks to Mr. Harris too! That's real indefatigability!

    But what of Ilona? Was she still Ilona? Was the character even there?

  6. I went back after all this time, and my review makes no mention of Ilona, so I think that plotline might've begun with "The Shop Around the Corner." Or maybe I just didn't mention it in my review. Hard to know. If I dig up the program and verify, I will let you know.