The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Having just made the heavenly Ninotchka (1939), highlighted by one of the greatest comedy performances in cinema, Greta Garbo’s, Ernst Lubitsch now made a charming, funny, warm, delicate and, surprisingly, deeply moving romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner.
The setting is Matuschek’s, a bourgeois gift shop in Budapest in the early 1930s. Two of the employees, Klara Novak and Alfred Kralik, constantly bicker. What Kralik doesn’t know is that he is in love with Klara. They are anonymous pen-pals. Will the two come together in one another’s arms or forever conduct their romance through the post office?
The title sets the universal tone of the piece. It also distances the time of its activities from the time when the film was made and released. The world that Lubitsch so lovingly details is just out of reach—“around the corner.” The agent of change in Europe has been Adolf Hitler. In the guise of light romantic comedy, Lubitsch’s Shop is his lament for the Europe that he remembers, the Europe that has vanished. A Berliner, Lubitsch also was Jewish, and this deepens his lament. The tenderness with which he gazes at the interconnected lives at Matuschek’s is an index of the keen sense of loss he feels. They are a kind of family. This film is unique in Lubitsch’s canon; it is emotionally full.
Actors are indispensable to Lubitsch. His star, sherry-voiced Margaret Sullavan, is wonderful as Klara, hilarious, poignant; James Stewart is good as Kralik; and the European-born Jewish actors in the supporting cast, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Morgan and Felix Bressart, are excellent.
Along with Lubitsch, we all end up missing Matuschek’s. And we miss his glowing film, until we pop it back in the machine and it breaks our hearts all over again.
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