Film Reviews

The Shop Around the Corner review: Dir. Ernst Lubitsch (1940)

If you recognise the title The Shop Around the Corner, it’s probably because it’s the name of the store that Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen Kelly owns in You’ve Got Mail, which also stars Tom Hanks as Joe Fox. That 1998 film from the excellent Nora Ephron finds itself amongst the company of films that harked back to romantic movie encounters of the past but is a snappy, savvy human insight into love and individuality.

1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, was the direct inspiration for Ephron’s film and in the best kind of way. Not only does Ephron’s version take the central premise as the key narrative but she borrows a couple of scenes which you’ll see here – and even if it’s your first visit to Lubitsch’s story, this remains its own entity that’s well worth losing yourself in.

Adapted from the Hungarian play Parfumerie, by Miklós László, the film is set just before Christmas in pre-war Budapest in Hungary. It’s very much a charming romantic comedy that’s as sharp and smart as anything today as we follows the peaks and troughs of the relationship between two shop assistants: Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), who both work at Matuschek and Company, an upmarket store that sells leather bags, wallets and other bits and pieces. While at first, they seem to get on, they also endlessly disagree with each other and amusingly bicker in every room in the store, about all kinds of things. However, as you may guess, they’re also unknowingly sending each other letters outside of work and are passionately connecting with things in common but on that side of the relationship have never met in person.

While The Shop Around the Corner holds us with sparkling script, the key to everything good is also the cast. There’s Jimmy Stewart on fine form, his character is honest and with a good touch of complexity and comedy, which makes him likeable. Margaret Sullavan is a modern woman, and while courts ideas of perfect love, she’s also independently minded and knows what she wants. The scene in the café between the two, when Stewart’s Kralik know the truth about who Sullavan’s Novak is, but she believes she’s waiting for her mystery date, is an exemplary masterclass mix of comedy and brutal reality – it’s so watchable and pleasurable.

Sullavan and Stewart’s chemistry is natural, they keep it fresh so you enjoy their squabbles and you also notice a lingering of other feelings in the air as they exchange words back and forth. It’s a steady build and works so well. There are sharp performances from Frank Morgan as Hugo Matuschek, the owner whose wife is spending all his money and he’s losing his grip on reality a little; Felix Bressart as Pirovitch, Kralik’s friend and confidant in the letter writing secrets; William Tracy as Pepi Katona, an Errand Boy trying to work his way into a job at the shop; and it’s worth mentioning co-starring roles for Inez Courtney, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden and Charles Halton.

The script from Samson Raphaelson is funny and intelligent at setting up each scenario and while it hardly gives its characters a moment to (literally) breathe, I mean this in an entirely positive way. These aren’t just wordy shop workers, our main actors bring their character to life with unique character imperfections and perfections to discover over the course of the lively 1 hour 38-minute runtime. There’s also a lot more here than just comedy and romantic encounters, the laughter sits within the subtle reality of depression, adultery and even the very real need for our characters to work, so they can provide for their families, which gives events genuine depth.

The set design itself is simple yet effective, you can feel the play element because it’s primarily in the shop but they do venture around a stage Budapest and I loved the Hungarian language that adorns the shops, walls and signs – it offers an authenticity that isn’t essential yet looks great and gives the origins of The Shop Around the Corner its due honour, thus giving the film a deeper meaning than if it been anglicised, something that happens too often with some modern films.

Genuine depth, warmth and insight, The Shop Around the Corner is a true delight.

The Shop Around the Corner returns to cinemas on 3 December from BFI Distribution

Click the links for screenings at: BFI Southbank, HOME Manchester, IFI Dublin, QFT Belfast, Glasgow Film Theatre and check your local cinemas UK-wide for more.

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