#47 — The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1948)
Even though he was consistently billed as James Stewart, we call him Jimmy. He is one of the classic movie actors who represents a nostalgic view of America as a land of benevolent geniality. In the collective imagination he is stalwart and kind, always prone to doing the right thing, even when terrible beset by circumstance. It’s part of the reason his overtly twisted turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is heaped with praise; critics are eager to reward Stewart for playing against type. While Stewart’s placement on a pinnacle of sepia-tinted cinematic Americana isn’t without cause, the truth is, as ever, a little more complicated. Well before he started accepting paychecks to appear in Hitchcock’s thrillers, Stewart tended to lace his portrayals with shades of desperation, anger, even viciousness. He beamed like the most endearing of movie stars, but the nuances beneath the charm suggested a troubled pulse. Though it doesn’t often make its way into the plentiful clip packages celebrating Stewart’s career, there was darkness there.
In The Shop Around the Corner, Stewart plays Alfred Kralik, a skilled salesman at a gift shop in Budapest. His aspirations to a greater position at the store impact the plot, but this is mainly a love story. Klalik has fallen for a mysterious woman with whom he’s been corresponding, though they haven’t yet met. He has the opposite impression of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a new coworker at the store who stirs his ire like no other. As is undoubtedly clear to anyone whose seen one of the dozens of movies that The Shop Around the Corner has heavily influenced, Klalik’s foe and beloved are one and the same. The film represents one of the supreme tests of Stewart’s ability to thread the needle of likability, heaping verbal abuse on Klara and other coworkers while still remaining a figure that inspires the audience to root for him. Stewart is breaking the rules of how a Hollywood protagonist is built well before such inverted tactics became the norm.
Of course, it’s not just Stewart who makes the contradictions of The Shop Around the Corner work. The film represents one of the most adept balancing acts of a filmmaker who was know for tonal deftness that it’s extremely rare to read any assessment of his work that doesn’t include an admiring reference to the “touch” that bears his name. Ernst Lubitsch has a remarkable ability, arguably unparalleled at the time, to present viewers with fraught, highly charged, fiercely complicated material and make it seem light and jubilant. Bore down into the details of The Shop Around the Corner and it is filled with challenging elements — devastating infidelity, a suicide attempt, colleagues constantly and angrily at odds with each other — yet the film itself is warm and funny, standing as one of the foundational romantic comedies. Modern filmmakers usually content to crank out by the numbers comedies of swooning buffoons would benefit immeasurably from studying the inner workings of The Shop Around the Corner. The friction between the surface expectations and the inner truth of the work elevates it, transforming the film into something special and unique. The flawed imitators that followed help prove that.