Famous for being the film upon which Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film, You’ve Got Mail (1998) was based on (and also the film upon which the Judy Garland/Van Johnson musical, In the Good Old Summertime (1949) was based on), The Shop Around the Corner was itself adapted from a play called Parfumerie, by Miklos Laszlo.
The film is set in Budapest, and tells the story of two employees at the same store, who do not get on with each other, but who, unbeknownst to them, are each other’s anonymous penpal. Through their letters, the two correspondents fall in love with each other, but will love win through when their real identities are revealed?
James Stewart plays Alfred Kralick (presumably meant to be Hungarian, but uses his instantly recognisable American accent throughout!) and Maureen Sullavan is Klara Novak (also with an American accent!) Actually, my mention of the accents is in no way intended as a criticism – I do believe that you have to suspend disbelief in certain circumstances, and in actual fact, this is a delightful and thoroughly charming film.
It is a romantic comedy, but make no mistake – there are themes of loneliness, adultery, suicide and betrayal running through the story, which somehow balance perfectly with the funnier and sweeter moments. James Stewart is perfect in roles like this – sometimes Alfred can be irascible, and sometimes he can be insensitive, but he also conveys vulnerability and honesty. Sullavan was also very endearing as Klara, the young lady falling in love with a man she has never met (or at least, who she believes she has never met), and who has high hopes for their future. However, what really elevates this film above others of the genre is the excellent supporting cast. Frank Morgan as Hugo Matuschek – the owner of the store – is by turns funny and sad. His performance has real pathos, and heart. Also terrific is Felix Bressart, as Alfred’s friend and co-worker Pirovitch, and William Tracy as errand big Pepi Katona.
The ending is lovely, if somewhat predictable, but what does it matter if we know all along how things are going to turn out. In a film like this, the joy is not in reaching the destination, but the journey we take to get there. And it’s a lovely journey, filled with great moments. Highly recommended.
Year of release: 1940
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Miklos Laszlo (play ‘Parfumerie’), Samson Raphaelson, Ben Hecht
Main cast: James Stewart, Maureen Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart, William Tracy, Joseph Schildkraut, Inez Courtney, Sara Haden