June 15, 2004

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Grade: 60/100

Suppose you have a wonderful inner soul that nobody knows about. Or, perhaps, just one person knows. That person has never met you, doesn't know your age or position, but this special someone is lavished with the vast splendor of your glorious inner soul, courtesy of the United States Postal Service.

Actually, The Shop Around the Corner, a delightful romantic comedy from 1940, is set in Hungary. But they have mail there as well, which includes box 237 in a certain Budapest post office frequented by Margaret Sullavan. She awaits letters from her secret admirer, whom she has fallen in love with.

Her postal paramour, Jimmy Stewart, is equally smitten with her, but they have never met. Or have they? The coincidence is preposterous, of course, but nonetheless charming. They are both salesclerks in the same general store, which is owned by former Wizard of Oz Frank Morgan.

Through their letters, Stewart and Sullavan are soul mates who have risen above the petty meanness and daily rituals that consume their (our?) existence. At the shop it is altogether different. The two fence and bicker, since, after all, the beauty of an inner soul cannot be revealed to a mere salesclerk, even if he or she is kind of attractive, at least in an awkward sort of way.

The message is that true love does not arrive signed, sealed, and delivered through the mail. Rather, it could be nearby all along, like a ripe apple just waiting to be plucked from a tree. However lovely our inner souls might be, what we really want from a partner is youth, looks, and a promising station. Although a way with words certainly doesn't hurt.

The multilevel courtship of Stewart and Sullavan is the centerpiece of The Shop Around the Corner, but there are other story lines as well. Stewart has been working for Morgan for nine successful years, but lately his boss has been giving him the cold shoulder. Why could this be?

Then there's the case of much disliked co-worker Joseph Schildkraut. Even more obnoxious than usual recently, Schildkraut has begun to throw money around, which doesn't seem possible on a salesclerk's stipend. The role of garrulous comic relief falls upon William Tracy, who learns the payoff of being in the right place at the right time.

The famed Lubitsch Touch is evident in the way that characters are developed through warm and clever dialogue. Stewart is to be unwittingly given a musical cigar box by Sullavan. The boxes have meaning for Sullavan, since the sale of one earned her position at the shop. However, they are detested by Stewart, perhaps because they represent his problematic relationship with Morgan, who cannot see that the two purposes of a musical cigar box are not compatible.

Stewart cagily maneuvers Sullavan into giving him a fancy wallet instead, using mutual confidant Felix Bressart as an intermediary. Once Bressart has made the sale, he bursts into Stewart's office to announce, "You'll get the wallet." The con is revealed to the audience, and it may be the film's finest moment. Although it is a close second when Schildkraut tumbles over a stack of the unwieldy music boxes, and his former co-workers rush to his side in concern... for the merchandise.

Perhaps it isn't the radiant majesty of our inner souls that makes us special after all. Perhaps we are better defined instead through our relationships with others, and in particular, by what we say (and don't say) to one another. Lubitsch seems to have known this all along.