Touching Lubitsch

Bedridden in Budapest: James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner.

The Shop Around the Corner
Oak Street Cinema
Friday through Sunday

THERE'S A different Christmastime movie with Jimmy Stewart to choose from this holiday season. It doesn't have angels, but it is heavenly. Instead of a greedy Mr. Potter or a refuge named Martini's Bar, there's a big-nosed, warm-hearted guy named Pirovitch and a lovely little Budapest café with gypsy violinists. And the movie is one of the most perfect ever made in Hollywood.

Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner came out in 1940 as part of a famously blessed, two-year string of hits and masterpieces that proved the studio system could sometimes work: The Wizard of Oz, How Green Was My Valley, Rebecca, Gone With the Wind, Dark Victory, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington...to name a few.

These are still worth watching, but Lubitsch's Shop Around the Corner deserves special notice right now for a number of reasons. A major draw would be "the late Jimmy Stewart at his most sincere," but another might be that Shop has just been announced as the basis for next year's You Have Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and directed by their Sleepless in Seattle honcho, Nora Ephron.

Oh, but The Shop Around the Corner should be seen as more than just preparatory research or an in-memoriam tribute. As romantic comedy, it has a tender and even troubled undercurrent; it's a workplace story made just as the Depression was fading; and it's reportedly Lubitsch's own favorite, featuring his precious but loosely defined "Lubitsch touch." Its story is simple, featuring two people who hate each other at work but are unknowingly romantic pen pals. When one of them realizes the truth and plays with the other's imagination--temporarily--it's as funny as such comedies can ever be. But because these two people and those around them are also facing deeper concerns, the movie resonates with enduring empathy.

Alfred Kralik (Stewart) is chief clerk at Matuschek & Co., a leather goods shop in Budapest during Hungary's other democratic era. Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), more than a little desperate to have a job there, gets one mainly because blustery Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan, a.k.a. the Wizard of Oz) feels he's being dared not to hire her. Klara and Alfred quickly settle into standard love/hate schtick. But at the same time, Mr. Matuschek suspects his wife of an affair and fires the innocent Kralik as the suspect. And Kralik, unemployed, fears that the long-awaited fateful meeting with his "Dear Friend" pen pal will go badly, so he skips out. Klara, stung by the missed rendezvous, goes home and pulls the covers over her head. Matuschek, bereft for his own reasons, nearly shoots himself. As this plot develops, people start visiting each other on their sickbeds, which is pretty unlikely stuff for romantic comedy, even when the climax is marked by Christmas Eve.

However critics then or now defined the "Lubitsch touch," it had something to do with this efficient and stylish pairing of bitter and sweet, vulnerable and vain. Lubitsch was better known for lighter romps with a stronger sexual undertone, often about aristocrats or pretenders in Continental settings. But he also proved able to break with his own tradition: To wit, Shop's co-feature this weekend at Oak Street is the love-a-Marxist comedy Ninotchka, another of those '39-'40 treasures and the movie that advertised, "Garbo laughs!" The director's handle on clever dialogue in that movie and Shop (written by his loyal collaborator Samson Raphaelson) makes a perfect major/minor-key score for actors such as Sullavan, Stewart, Morgan, and Felix Bressart (playing Pirovitch, another clerk).

Ironically, the musicality of these words posed a singular challenge to Sullavan, who was tone deaf. Famed in her time as a Broadway/Hollywood switch-hitter, she was uniquely gifted with a half-raspy voice and a breathy, oddly timed delivery that was somewhere between "siren" and "gasping tomboy." She, like Jimmy Stewart, could find the funny stuff in a sad moment and the deeper tones in a trill of laughter. When Klara explains to Alfred that "psychologically, I was mixed up," she is both riffing on Hollywood's infatuation with Freud and using her winsome diction to tell the truth. As her partner, Stewart stammers a little like he usually does, but he's nowhere near the broad bluster of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Like the rest of these middle-class dreamers happy to be working on Christmas Eve, his Shop character knows that maybe a nice stuffed goose and a dear companion is the most he should expect in life.

The Shop Around the Corner was not a runaway hit in its time, but it later inspired both movie- and stage-based musicals (In the Good Old Summertime and She Loves Me). And now Hanks, Ryan, and Ephron will use the twist of e-mail to explore again this mystery between a dream of love and its reality. Will they make a movie as flawless as this, in which the dialogue of the last half hour is spoken at whisper levels? Can they find a finale as crackpot and charming as the sight of Jimmy Stewart's gartered shins? Until the results show up, we are left with the delicious task of studying and otherwise falling for this ideal role model.

 
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