So this year I was determined to participate in The Matinee's 'Blind Spot' series, and my year has already gotten off to a pretty awesome start. In case you aren't aware, this series (which is pretty self explanatory) challenges bloggers to select a film they have yet to see but feel they should (because of it's regard by the cinematic world or fellow cinephiles) for each month of the new year, watch and review them. I chose 12 films from the 1940's, since it is a year that I am the least familiar with.
My first film this year was 'The Shop Around the Corner'.
I always feel ashamed when I find out that a classic film has been remake and I’ve seen the remake but never the classic film and, in all honesty, had no idea that the classic film was the inspiration for the remake. I feel like I should know these things. So, when I found out that ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, a film that I had been wanting to see for some time now, was actually the inspiration for 1998’s ‘You’ve Got Mail’ I felt terrible.
Why didn’t I watch this movie sooner?
The problem when watching these classic films that you’ve seen the modern remake for is that you tend to confuse the two, failing to separate them as individual films and wind up comparing them or waiting for the original to follow the same storyline as the remake. It was in that that I found myself detached from ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ and I wound up having to restart the film because I wasn’t paying attention. I was waiting for it to take the same shape as ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and it was distracting and I found myself not connecting with this film, which was weird for me. So, on a second try I found ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ to be a truly inspired film, one that I didn’t wholly expect (because of preconceived notions). ‘You’ve Got Mail’, while a typically delightful romantic comedy, doesn’t have the societal significance of ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, even though it tries to (big business taking over local business being a theme there).
For me, the depth in the subplots here is where the real joy is found.
It’s almost weird for me to think that ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ is not a romantic comedy. I mean, it is in a way, but in many ways it is not. Margaret Sullavan, while top billed, is relegated to a supporting player here and while Alfred Kralik (James Stewart’s character) is falling in love with his pen pal (and the main storyline does concern him finding her) the story takes so many other, more colorful directions. The film’s main concern is telling a story of economic crisis, family hardships, betrayed trust, the cruel blow of assumption, loyalty and eventually the ideal that what you really want and need in life is right in front of you.
‘The Shop Around the Corner’ tells the story of Alfred Kralik, a dedicated sales clerk who works for Hugo Matuschek. When Klara Novak enters his store looking for a job, Alfred is skeptical, but Hugo is smitten and she soon is battling Alfred over everything. Klara becomes a beloved member of the team, while Alfred remains somewhat distanced from her. In the meantime, neither knows that they are secretly falling in love with each other through letters they are writing to an anonymous pen pal. As they fall in love in secret, they grow even more distanced in person. While this lovers quarrel is brewing, Matuschek himself is dealing with a more real quarrel concerning his dwindling business and his wife’s indiscretions (both infidelity and financial squandering) and when he starts to draw his own conclusions based on what he perceives in his own store, the results are heartbreaking (for him and those involved).
Ernst Lubitsch had such a flowing ease about his films. He had this delightful way of building characters and scenarios with an effortless swish of his brush, never bogging his films down or making them feel too heavy despite containing some very weighty themes. I know that many adore Capra, but Lubitsch knew how to make a Capra film better than Capra did. ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ is a prime example of this; a film that has such heavy situations (especially when concerning Matuschek’s personal life) and yet has such a light and subtle touch that keeps it all feeling so natural and human.
And I’ll say this; James Stewart won the Oscar for the wrong film this year. While I love ‘The Philadelphia Story’ as a film (even more so than this one, if I’m being honest), that movie was really all about Cary Grant and I’ve always been baffled that Stewart won the Oscar for that film. He truly should have been nominated for this film instead, for his layered portrayal of Alfred is astonishing and really heartbreaking (and lifting). Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, and one thing that I’ve always admired about him was the way that he was able to sift through so many different emotions so naturally. He can be dramatic, sincere, comedic and romantic in the same film and at times in the same moment and have it all feel so genuine. He does that here, and the scene in the café, when his pride is wounded by Klara, is such a brilliant moment.
The rest of the cast is very good, Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan taking top honors. Morgan in particular is VERY strong as the emotionally wounded Matuschek. In fact, he may give my favorite performance in this film, because he shields the truth about his persona so beautifully and develops it with such gradual realism. When he has his big moment in the shop all alone (saved by Pepi) I could feel under my skin every emotion Morgan was filtering.
He gave me chills.
My only qualm here is the performance by William Tracy. His Pepi was beyond obnoxious and took me out of the film in many moments. I know that he was there for broad comic relief, but he was just straight up annoying and should have been stripped from the film entirely. I don’t hate many characters in films that I love, but he fits the bill.
But I do love this movie! Really that is what matters. This is sharp, poignant and entertaining, and few films can be all those things and still remain smooth and comforting.
This was a wonderful way to start the series! I have added a sidebar that lists all 12 films, and I will be updating it each month my personal grades for those films, so check it out. If you are like me and haven't gotten around to seeing this classic gem, I advise you to do so ASAP!