Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Better Shop Around

As our final bit of holiday cheer, we watched The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, it's full of great actors and "that Lubitsch touch".

It's set in backlot Budapest around Christmas, in a little luggage and knick-knack shop, where Jimmy Stewart is a clerk. One day, Margaret Sullavan comes in, looking for a job, and manages to get off on the wrong foot with Stewart. All the while they are quarelling, we know something that they don't - they are anonymous correspondents with each other, pen-pals. And they are falling in love on paper, while fighting when face to face.

If it sounds familiar to you, and you are not a classic movie fan, maybe it is because you saw the remake with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, You've Got Mail (1998). Or maybe the Judy Garland musical version In the Good Old Summertime (1948). But that's preposterous, we've already established that you don't watch old movies. Never mind - let's just say this movie was remade a few times. But this is the real thing.

It's partly Stewart and Sullavan, it's partly the supporting cast. The boss in played by Frank Morgan, the smooth-talking yes-man clerk by Joseph Schildkraut. William Tracy as the hot-shot delivery boy has several great scenes. But best of all is Felix Bressart, a drab little man with a big mustache and pince-nez glasses. He is a friend of Stewart's and a great philosopher, with a lot of the best lines.

In fact, one of our all-time favorite movie scenes is when Stewart is meeting his pen-pal for the first time, and asks to Bressart to look for her through the cafe window. He reports, "She's drinking coffee. She's taking a bit of cake." Then, shocked, "She's dunking!" Partly Bressart, partly the Lubitsch Touch.

That touch involves a sophisticated script that can be gentle and psychologically deep, but always exact and precise. The performances are all spot-on - it's great watching Stewart's face as Sullavan prattles on. I've read that her temper is as bad as her characters, maybe that's what makes her part so much fun.

And it all winds up on Christmas Eve.

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