Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Blind Spot Series 2014: The Shop Around the Corner

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!


  1. Yay! I'm so glad you started out the series with this film! I couldn't agree more on Stewart's performance, and I love the performances by Sullavan and Morgan - my current winners that year. (I have Sullavan as a lead, but I think it could go either way. There's so much else going on that I totally get a supporting placement for her performance.)

    I actually haven't seen many Lubitch films, so I need to fix that. I did get the Lubitsch musicals set on DVD, though. At some point, I'll definitely check out The Smiling Lieutenant.

    1. Morgan is my winner right now too, and I don't see it changing (he was so good).

      I cannot wait to see what you think of The Smiling Lieutenant! You need to write a review when you see it :-D

  2. "Errand boy? Doctor, do I refer to you as a 'Pill Peddlar'?"

    Sweet Jesus, did you ever choose a great title to start your year with - and for what it's worth, you have several more gems yet to come.

    I actually watched this for the first time myself just a few weeks ago. Having finally finished a book I was reading about Billy Wilder, I decided that it was high time I familiarized myself with the man who inspired Wilder, and figured this was as good a starting point as any. The only other film of his I've seen is NINOTCHKA, so I'll have to get back to you on whether I was right in my point-of-entry.

    You also bring up a great point about the remake effect - one that I had to work around with my own selection this month. I think the biggest difference between our experiences was that you were watching a film that was remade with reasonable success, and I was watching one that certainly wasn't. If we are going to compare the two, I too believe that Lubitsch "wore it better", if for no other reason than the dynamic between Novak and Kralik. There's no professional rivalry to keep them apart, just the way they act towards one-another. At work they wear one mask, and when they leave they wear another...so many people today are the same way, aren't they? Get them out of the office and they're a different person. To me that's a better approach than working with a couple that are professional rivals.

    Like you, I love this film a lot. It's probably the best thing I've seen all month, and might rank up there with my favorite first-timers of 2014 (if not, I'm in for one hell of a year!). Before I go, I have to mention my favorite moment - the one that smacks of comedic gold:

    when Alfred shoves the weasly employee into the display of boxes.

    I started laughing when they all start playing Ochi Tchorny at once when they get knocked over (since Kralik already griped about that earlier). Then, I really lost it when the employees make a move towards him…and just when we think they’re going to pick him up, they start gathering the boxes instead.

    Great start sir - here's to 11 more!

    1. It really was great, right! I can't wait to dig deeper into this year's 'Blind Spots'...I've actually done quite a bit of 40's blind spot watching this month ('Lifeboat', 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', 'The Little Foxes', 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', 'Suspicion'), so I'm just loving what is happening this year!

  3. The Shop Around the Corner may be my favorite series of remakes. The original with Jimmy and Margaret is so sweet and warm, it makes for a great to start of a beautiful series. Alfred and Klara are one of the best movie couples. Nice review!

    1. Thanks! And I do love both films, so I agree with you there. It's nice to see the differences too, the variations of themes and really how the remake is less a remake and merely inspired, which is the way I like my remakes.

  4. So I guess I should be glad I never saw You've Got Mail? I heard it's very sweet but the only reason I'm going to watch it now is because of how much I love The Shop Around the Corner.

    It does start out like a romantic comedy, in a way, but then turns into so much more. The only Capra film I've seen is Arsenic and Old Lace, which was hilarious, but not as good as this one in my opinion. So you might be right. Anyway, as a German, I should probably watch more Lubitsch films.

    By the way, you're in for a treat, at least with La Belle et la Bête and Shadow of a Doubt, which are the only ones from your list that I've seen.

    1. I can't wait to get into this. I'm having so much trouble preventing myself from watching them all in the same month. The fact that I actually have half of this list sitting on my DVR doesn't help any. I've already started my next film ('Penny Serenade') and I'm biding my time before I review it.

      I highly recommend 'The Smiling Lieutenant' from Lubitsch. It's one of my all time favorite films!

  5. I know I'm a bit late commenting on this but I'm a big fan of the film and it's such a great idea to be exploring one film you've been curious about each month.

    This to me is by far the best of the three versions of the tale. Beside You've Got Mail, which is my least favored of the bunch, there is a musicalized version called In the Good Old Summertime (oddly since the majority of the film takes place in winter) that starred Judy Garland and Van Johnson which the story in Mail more closely resembles since they flattened out all the original's bittersweet pathos and prickly edges in favor of a sunnier tone.

    Much as I love Judy Garland, and I do-she was an extraordinary performer, her version was only middling even with her in fine voice and singing some great songs. She felt so too and considered it one of her lesser films. While she is very different from Margaret Sullavan she at least was an individual and unique performer, the same can't be said for Johnson who was in no way Jimmy Stewart's equal.

    Margaret Sullavan is one of my favorite Golden Age actresses, I could listen to her voice for hours, her wounded, fragile but resilient dignity is class all the way. Unfortunately she was high strung and difficult to work with plus she preferred the stage to the screen so her filmography is small but what there is of it is always interesting because of her contribution. She and Stewart have a great chemistry, they were old friends having started out together in repertory theatre together with Henry Fonda who was her first husband. Jimmy stated many times that he loved her unrequitedly all her life and it comes through so clearly in their scenes together.

    You are so right that this is the more deserving performance for Jimmy's Oscar, I never saw him as the lead in Philadelphia Story but category fraud is almost as old as the Oscars themselves and so are consolation awards which this was for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

    Pepi didn't bother me as much as he seemed to you but of all the charming supporting players his was the least appealing. I think this is my favorite piece of work by Frank Morgan. His Wizard of Oz is great but it's really a burlesque performance and rightly so but I ached for the kind, put upon Mr. Matuschek. His final scene subtly trying to find someone to spend Christmas Eve with so he won't be alone gets me every time. That he wasn't nominated when there were several weaker performances that were is a head scratcher.

    Lubitsch didn't always hit a home run with his films but when all the elements came together for him as they did here, in To Be or Not to Be and Heaven Can Wait among others there were few better.

    1. Better late than never! Thank you so much for the comment!

      I love how insightful your comments are. You can tell that you are passionate about what you write about. You should strongly consider a blog of your own!

      I've never heard of Good Old Summertime, but I may check it out. I do love Garland, but your cautionary approach to the film has me iffy on whether or not I want to give it a go.

      This really was a delightful film. I actually love most of Lubitsch's films that I've seen, especially his 30's stuff. He had a knack for layered his comedy so that it wasn't all prat falls and physical gags but actual heartfelt moments that gave a bounty of emotions.

      And the Frank Morgan Oscar snub is ridiculous.

  6. Fabulous little film and it's one of Stewart's gems that has flown under a few radars. I really like Margaret Sullavan as well. She was delightful which makes her troubled life all the more sad.

    Great review bro.

    1. Oh no, I was unaware she had a troubled life. It's always sad when you discover the truth behind many of Hollywood's legends.