Ernst Lubitsch's festive rom-com, the inspiration for You've Got Mail, is just as charming eight decades after its initial release
To many critics and filmmakers alike, Ernst Lubitsch was the father of modern Hollywood. The Berlin-born director founded a romantic-comedy style and narrative clarity that can still be found in a number of contemporary releases today. He also paved the way for further generations of immigrant creatives who made their nest in America, notably influencing Billy Wilder as a friend and mentor. His 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner, now on re-release and a definitive work in the festive genre, differs from many of his films in that it places wit and melancholy front and centre of the storefront. Watching it a year after Christmas was literally cancelled, it still feels as earnest, heartfelt and conscious of its delicate themes as ever.
Set in a lovingly evoked Budapest in the run-up to Christmas, the film focuses on the various obstacles blocking the path of potential lovers Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), co-workers in the gossip-ridden emporium “Matuschek and Company.” Heading up the shop is none other than Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan), a meticulous figure adorned in thick fur who demands attentiveness from all his staff, including the new recruit Klara. However, the two younger clerks of the shop, who can't stand one another, are unaware that they’re in fact courting one another by mail in an anonymous correspondence.
The magic of the film rests in the interplay between Sullavan and Stewart in their almost screwball-esque deliverance of Samson Raphaelson and Miklós László’s script. Adapted from the original Hungarian stage play Parfumerie, the setting remains the same to the benefit of romance and economic weight. The duo’s script is sharp with not just comedy but genuine sincerity for its characters, particularly Matuschek. The two writers also notably share credits on You’ve Got Mail, which adapted the tale and pioneered the modern rom-com well into the 90s and early noughties.
Stewart’s lanky physicality is used to the film’s benefit in adding a fluidity to the titular location, captured through the graceful pans of Daniel’s camera, which comfortably roams the shop floors. Arguably defining his iconic screen presence, and also later adopted in another festive feature, It’s A Wonderful Life, Stewart’s performance is measured by a beating heart of sincerity towards his character’s desires. Meanwhile, the film’s mise en scène seeks to place the two central love interests as opposites divided by objects, particularly desks and pillars, within the workplace. It is only in the final moments that the two appear without anything separating them, thus symbolically underlining their romantic unity.
Lubitsch does not overly depend on film’s charm to be drawn from its central two characters, though, with a host of memorable supporting characters – including the errand boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy) and fellow shop clerk Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) – adding to proceedings. The duo’s inclusion fleshes out the setting of the shop and makes it feel more like an organic space. In the case of Pepi, his character’s fast-talking presence leans heavily into the screwball genre but his genuine affection for Matuschek shines through beyond his comedic value. Such characters are part of the communal feeling that helps to define Shop Around the Corner as a definitive Christmas film: the bringing together of people from an array of backgrounds for one moment of the year.
With its effortless blend of comedy and romance, it's easy to see why the film has endured with audiences eight decades after its original release. This is a universal tale about the beauty of love, underscored with a clear message of helping out those in need. A classic in every sense of the word, The Shop Around the Corner is the rare gift of a film that warrants a trip back to its witty and reassuring interior, year after year.
The Shop Around the Corner is now showing in select UK cinemas.Where to watch