sun 16/06/2024

12 Films of Christmas: The Shop Around the Corner | reviews, news & interviews

12 Films of Christmas: The Shop Around the Corner

12 Films of Christmas: The Shop Around the Corner

James Stewart lets nothing him dismay in Ernst Lubitsch's seasonal romantic comedy

Poison penpals: James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in 'The Shop Around the Corner'

In the early years of the talkies, they sure did a lot of talking, and no actor mastered the tricky art of gabbling on screen quite like the young James Stewart. The Shop Around the Corner (1940) was a perfect vehicle for the versatile but somehow always gawky all-American everyman who had starred most recently as Frank Capra’s leading man in You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

And it's all talk here. Ernst Lubitsch took a frothy 1937 stage play by Hungarian-born naturalised American Miklós László, known in English as Parfumerie, and turned it into a romantic comedy with a Christmas flavouring. Stewart plays Mr Kralik, an employee of Matuschek’s gift shop in Budapest who is conducting a high-flown epistolary romance with a woman he has never met, little realising that his unknown lover is working under his nose as a newly hired shop assistant (Margaret Sullavan). Each as ignorant as the other, they cordially detest each other, only for Stewart’s character Kralik eventually to uncover the truth when, in the film's most wonderful scene, he furtively turns up for his own blind date. His task is to find a way of romancing away the resistance of his intended, while they both must see past their second-hand notions of love.

The film would go on to be rebooted for the clickable age by Nora Ephron as You’ve Got Mail

The Shop Around the Corner is a Christmas movie insofar as it culminates in a day of record pre-Christmas sales for the shop, masterminded by Mr Kralik as a gift to the ailing Mr Matuschek (Frank Morgan), whose grouchiness makes way for seasonal munificence in the manner of Scrooge’s about-face. Stewart delivers only one of the film’s several highly likeable performances – most but the leads adopting middle European accents - although Sullavan’s garrulous presence hasn’t perhaps worn quite so well.

László’s play about warring penpals has proved a popular template. It twice resurfaced as a musical, first on screen in 1949 as MGM's In the Good Old Summertime, in which Judy Garland was the first to sing what would become the seasonal standard “Merry Christmas”. And She Loves Me won the Tony for Best Musical in 1964. The film would go on to be rebooted for the clickable age by Nora Ephron as You’ve Got Mail. But nothing in its history perfumes a slender plot quite like the performance of Stewart, who after the war would go on to reunite with Capra and make perhaps the greatest Christmas film of them all.

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Judy Garland suggests you have yourself a merry little Christmas


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