Christmas gets more commercial every year. Charlie Brown lamented it in A Charlie Brown Christmas and it’s no less true in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. Set in Budapest around Christmastime, James Stewart plays Mr. Kralik, a store clerk and the second in command to Frank Morgan’s Mr. Matuschek.
Despite the wholesome sounding-ness of the title card which states, “This is the story of Matuschek and Company – of Mr. Matuschek and the people who work for him,” Mr. Matuschek isn’t the easiest person to work for, and he’s not looking for any new employees, but that doesn’t stop Margaret Sullavan’s Klara from trying. Eager for work, she manages to convince Mr. Matuschek to hire her, but not without going around Mr. Kralik first. This doesn’t exactly bode well for their working relationship and the duo bicker a ton but, in true romantic comedy style, Mr. Kralik has been exchanging letters with an anonymous pen pal and it just so happens that pen pal is Klara herself.
Without saying which party finds out the truth, one of them does, and it’s fair to say they take advantage of that knowledge. You know you’re taking things too far when you start trying to intervene in a person’s Christmas shopping (like it would’ve been so bad to get a gift you didn’t want). There’s also a touch of darkness to this Christmas tale. Based on a play by Miklós Lászlo, Samson Raphaelson wrote the screenplay and while the script keeps it light with talk of “nervous breakdowns” and “psychological” confusion, it’s really touching on suicide and depression.
It’s not Stewart or Sullavan who runs away with this movie, though, but Felix Bressart. Bressart would work with Lubitsch three times and in The Shop Around the Corner he plays Mr. Pirovitch, one of the clerks at Matuschek’s store. For Pirovitch, work is a means to an end. He doesn’t love his job but he has a family to support, so he’s going to keep his head down, do his job well, and make sure to run away anytime Matuschek asks for someone’s “honest opinion.”
Warner Archive’s Blu-Ray includes an old MGM short about sound technology that is basically an advertisement for the studio’s upcoming slate of films and two radio play adaptations of The Shop Around the Corner. The first is from the Screen Guild Players and sees Stewart, Sullavan, and Morgan return to voice the same roles they played in the movie. It lasts about a half hour and basically pares down the film to four scenes, with the biggest change being that Klara is already hired when the play begins and is apparently a better salesperson than Mr. Martin (as Stewart’s character goes by in this production). It moves briskly and was actually more enjoyable than the Lux Radio Theater version, which was more faithful to the movie. Bressart returns as Pirovitch in that one, while Claudette Colbert voices Klara, and Don Ameche does a nice job in Stewart’s role.
The Shop Around the Corner is available on Blu-Ray starting December 22nd from Warner Archive.
Note: Warner Archive provided me with a free copy of the Blu-Ray I reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own.