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12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS | DAY 9: "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) takes place at Matuschek and Company, a leathergoods shop located "just around the corner from Andrassy Street — on Balta Street in Budapest, Hungary," where paternal Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan) presides firmly but fairly over his staff. There is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), the bashful yet lovestruck head clerk; Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), a kindly family man; Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schilkraut), a duplicitious womanizer; and Pepi Katona (William Tracy), an impetuous delivery boy. One morning, while waiting for Mr. Matuschek to arrive, Alfred reveals to Pirovitch that he has been conducting an anonymous courtship through letters with an intelligent woman whose ad he found in the newspaper.

That same morning, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) enters the shop looking for a job. Alfred tells her that there are no openings, but Mr. Matuschek hires her when she talks a customer into buying a cigarette box that he loves but Alfred hates. At work, Klara and Alfred argue incessently and he is grateful that his anonymous correnpondent is nothing like her. On the night that Alfred is set to meet "the most wonderful girl in the world" for the first time, Mr. Matuschek fires him, believing that he is having an affair with his wife. Later, when a private detective informs Mr. Matuschek that his wife is actually having an affair with Vadas, he tries to end his life, but is saved by Pepi. Meanwhile, Alfred arrives at his rendezvous and is astonished to discover that his secret lover is Klara. He approaches her as a co-worker, keeping his identity secret, but she asks him to leave. Later that night, Alfred goes to the hospital to visit Mr. Matuschek, who apologizes to him and then appoints him store manager. After firing Vadas, Alfred rallies his co-workers and two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Mr. Matuschek returns to find that the shop has achieved record sales. Grateful, Mr. Matuschek gives everyone their bonuses and sends them home early. Once everyone else has departed, Klara confides to Alfred that she finds him attractive and he finally reveals himself as her secret lover. 

Alfred Kralik: There are many things you don't know about me, Miss Novak. As a matter of fact, there might be a lot we don't know about each other. You know, people seldom go through the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.

Although Ernst Lubitsch began his professional career as an actor, making his debut in his native Germany in the film The Ideal Wife (1913), he gradually abandoned acting to concentrate on directing. By the early 1920s, he was already "the most famous film director in Europe, having evolved from a comedian specializing in rough but appealing slapstick to the creator of the intimate historical epic." In 1922, Lubitsch left Germany for Hollywood, contracted by silent film star Mary Pickford to direct her in Rosita (1923). With the advent of sound, he established a reputation as a maker of worldly musicals such as The Love Parade (1929) and sophisticated comedies like Trouble in Paradise (1932). In 1935, he took over as production head at Paramount, the only major director in Hollywood history to run a large studio, but was fired within a year. He returned to full-time filmmaking, though by then "the Lubitsch touch" seemed to have reached a dead end. 

Around the same time, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was developing Greta Garbo's first full comedy, Ninotchka (1939), co-written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. After the original director, George Cukor, departed the production to work on Gone with the Wind (1939), Garbo informed MGM that the only two people she would agree on to replace him were Edmund Goulding her director in Grand Hotel (1932) and Lubitsch, with whom she had always wanted to work. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer decided to go with Lubitsch. In fact, Mayer not only requested his services to direct Ninotchka, but also offered to buy and finance the screen adaptation of a property that Lubitsch owned, a 1937 Hungarian play by Miklós László entitled Parfumerie, the story two secret lovers working in a perfume shop in Budapest. What had attracted Lubitsch to the material was "its simplicity, its authentic emotions."

Stewart and Lubitsch on the set
As soon as he completed Ninotchka, Lubitsch began working on what would become The Shop Around the Corner, described in an MGM memo as "the apple of his directorial eye." The title change had been suggested by his then-wife, Vivian, though her exact wording had been The Little Shop Around the Corner. In adapting the play, both Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson drew upon their own personal experiences working in a shop. Lubitsch had helped out in his father's tailor shop in Berlin as a youth, while Raphaelson had worked in a store during the World's Columbian exhibition in Chicago in the late 1890s.

Lubitsch claimed that he envisioned James Stewart as Alfred Kralik when he and Raphaelson were writing the script, partially because of his grace as an instinctive actor, but mostly because he was "the antithesis of the old-time matinee idol; he holds his public by his very lack of a handsome face or a suave manner." Having just delivered an Oscar-nominated performance in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Stewart was enjoying one of the best periods in his career. That same year, he would star in Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940), which earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. 

The role of Klara Novak was initially conceived for the German actress Dolly Haas, but Lubitsch has second thoughts about casting an unknown actress for American audiences. After considering Janet Gaynor, MGM decided to hire Margaret Sullavan, who had appeared with Stewart in Next Time We Love (1936) and The Shopworn Angel (1938). Stewart and Sullavan had been close friends since the early 1930s, when they were both members of the University Players, a summer stock company founded in 1928 by Joshua Logan. Stewart's wife Gloria spoke of how her husband's and Sullavan's feelings informed the film: "Margaret had recently had a child, and Jim was dating a lot of other women. Lubitsch knew that by casting Jim and Margaret, they would have a chemistry that was always there between them on screen, but their private lives would provide a certain amount of detachment the story required them to have."

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan
Even though Sullavan was notorious for her quick temper and disdainful attitude towards Hollywood, Stewart counted working with her as one of the great joys of his acting career. Since he knew her personally, he was more equipped than most of the cast and crew members to deal with her frequent and volatile emotional outbursts. As she had always done in their pictures together, Sullavan gently coached Stewart during the filming of The Shop Around the Corner. She would make faces at him off-camera, making him angry which, as he noted, was exactly the reaction he was supposed to have. Another time, recalled Stewart, she complained he was not looking at her properly: "She'd say, 'Stop, right there. What the hell are you doing? You're not making me feel the way I'm supposed to feel.' And I'd say, 'You're not even in the shot, so how's anybody going to know?' And she'd say, 'Well, I'll know.' And then I'd just crack up with laughing."  

Stewart and Sullavan
Only one fight between Stewart and Sullavan occured during the making of The Shop Around the Corner a fairly ridiculous quarrel, but one that speaks volumes about their relationship, on-camera and off. In the film, there is a continuing joke about whether Alfred is bowlegged. When Alfred finally reveals his identity to Klara, she decides to get the answer to this question before the final clinch. Stewart was not bowlegged, but he did have skinny legs and he kept stumbling over his lines in take after take, since the scene required him to roll up his trousers and show his legs for the camera. Stewart would later tell Brooke Hayward, Sullavan's daughter, that the scene took 48 takes to get right and at one point he was ready to quit.

We were in a little restaurant and I had a line: 'I will come out on the street and I will roll my trousers up to my knees.' For some reason I couldn't say the line. Your mother was furious. She said, 'This is absolutely ridiculous.' There I was, standing with my trousers rolled up to the knee, very conscious of my skinny legs, and I said, 'I don't want to act today; get a fellow with decent legs and just show them.' Your mother said, 'Then I absolutely refuse to be in the picture.' So we did more takes.
(James Stewart)

Sullavan, Lubitsch and Stewart on the set
The Shop Around the Corner was shot quickly over the period of just 28 days, partly due to the efficiency that came with most of the story taking place on the set of Matuschek and Company. This allowed Lubitsch to shoot the film mostly in chronological sequence, allowing the stage-trained Stewart and Sullavan the rare luxury of building a performance over the course of a story. 

A meticulous filmmaker, Lubitsch approached production with obsessive care for the external details, making sure that a realistic Budapest leathergoods store would be constructed on the MGM lot. A few weeks before filming began, research expert Henry Noerdlinger obtained an inventory from an actual Budapest leather store to serve as a guide. When Sullavan asked for his approval for a simple $1.98 dress she had bought for the part, Lubitsch said it was "too smart for a clerk looking for a job." He not only had alterations done so that it would not fit quite so neatly, he also ordered it hung outside until it was slightly faded by the sun.

The Shop Around the Corner opened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on January 12, 1940 to generally positive reviews from critics. Variety called it "smart and clever [...] with all the vivaciousness and piquant humor" expected of Lubitsch. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times singled out the cast, noting how "James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut make The Shop Around the Corner a pleasant place to browse in. [...] Mr. Lubitsch must set up shop soon again." The film was fairly successful at the box-office as well, amassing a world gross of $1.3 million and a $380,000 profit. Ironically, Ninotchka, which Lubitsch was reluctant to direct, was less successful than The Shop Around the Corner, a film that Louis B. Mayer had not particularly wanted to make.

After The Shop Around the Corner premiered, Lubitsch told a reporter, "I have known such a little shop in Budapest. The feeling between the boss and those who work for him is pretty much the same world over, it seems to me. Everyone is afraid of losing his job and everyone knowns how little human worries can affect his job. If the boss has a touch of dyspepsia, better be careful not to step on his toes; when things have gone well with him, the whole staff reflects his good humor."

Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise by Scott Eyman (2015) | Haywire by Brooke Hayward (2011) | I'll Have What's She's Having: Behind the Scenes on Great Romantic Comedies by Daniel M. Kimmel (2008) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review


  1. This was beautifully written. Very informative! I learned a lot and I know more than most about this particular movie.


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