Ernst Lubitsch, who directed this movie, was a comedian in Berlin in the early 1910s. Short comic films were being made all over the world, and he appeared in quite a few made in Berlin, then began to direct them himself. By 1918 he was directing huge feature length spectaculars there – Carmen, Madame duBarry, and Anne Boleyn. Mary Pickford brought him to Hollywood in 1922 to direct her in features, and he stayed. He started to make stylish comedies, first for Warners, then for MGM and for Paramount. When talkies came he began to direct musicals, and in 1935 was named production chief at Paramount. In 1938 he planned to produce films independently with Myron Selznick, who was the brother of independent producer David Selznick. The financing didn’t happen, however, and in 1939 he signed with MGM and specified in his contract that he would make The Shop Around the Corner. He had to wait for the availability of both his stars, Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and the film was made, reportedly in sequence, which didn’t always happen, in November and December 1939 and released in January 1940. It was designated a film worthy of preservation by the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1999. Lubitsch is said to have considered it his best.
Those stars, Stewart and Sullivan, give quite perfect performances. The British critic David Thomson wrote of it “The Shop Around the Corner... is among the greatest of films... This is a love story about a couple too much in love with love to fall tidily into each other's arms. Though it all works out finally, a mystery is left, plus the fear of how easily good people can miss their chances. Beautifully written (by Lubitsch's favorite writer, Samson Raphaelson), The Shop Around the Corner is a treasury of hopes and anxieties based in the desperate faces of Stewart and Sullavan. It is a comedy so good it frightens us for them. The cafe conversation may be the best meeting in American film. The shot of Sullavan's gloved hand, and then her ruined face, searching an empty mail box for a letter is one of the most fragile moments in film. For an instant, the ravishing Sullavan looks old and ill, touched by loss.”
The celebrated “Lubitsch touch” for me includes well-characterized supporting players with substantial screen time. In this film, note the performances of Frank Morgan as Mr. Matuschek, Felix Bressart as Pirovitch, and William Tracy as Pepi Katona. Frank Morgan will probably always be remembered as the title character in The Wizard of Oz. In this film, he plays a man who is worried and distracted because of the circumstances of his life, and he does it with great flair and subtlety. Felix Bressart was a big comedy star in Germany in the late 20s and early 30s, who had to leave when Hitler took over. Lubitsch used him at least three times: this film, Ninotchka (which we’ll see in January) and To Be Or Not To Be, which we’ve shown previously. His character, Pirovitch, is the confidant, the sounding board for Stewart’s character, and often, the source of most of the wisdom the film imparts. William Tracy had a career as a juvenile on Broadway that led to roles in Warners pictures like Brother Rat and Angels With Dirty Faces in the late thirties. His career after this film mostly consisted of low-budget service comedies for Hal Roach during World War II. His role as the errand boy in the shop is performed with grace and balance.
I know you’ll enjoy The Shop Around the Corner…join me in watching it tonight.