Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Review: The Shop Around The Corner

When I visited my family, we tried to find a holiday- themed movie to put on one day, and we went searching through the "free movies on demand" feature that my parents have.  There were a lot of downright terrible offerings, but we spotted one movie buried deep that I was surprised to find wasn't being listed near the top as a great holiday movie.

Maybe that's because it's only directly related to Christmas in the same sense that Die Hard is a Christmas movie in that they both "happen to happen around that time of year."

It's also a movie I'm not sure you could remake and keep exactly as it is, because if you did it now, there would probably be some concerns as to whether or not what you're doing is in good taste, but I can't for the life of me find it in myself to complain about the same issue in this film.

No, it's not Blazing Saddles.  It's The Shop Around The Corner.

Filmed in 1940, the movie takes place in Budapest primarily at a small (to today's standards, back then it was probably huge) department store owned and operated by Hugo Matuschek.  The character of Hugo is played by Frank Morgan, the Wizard from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.  He has a small, dedicated team of employees who he entrusts with setting up display windows, selling goods, and helping to decide whether or not to stock certain items like wallets, jewelry, and music boxes that double as cigarette holders.

His top employee is Alfred Kralik, played by James Stewart (I'd cite other movies, but if you don't recognize him, nothing I can do will help).  He's flustered when Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) manages to- well, not really "con" since she doesn't trick anybody who works there, but she secures herself a job by convincing a customer to buy something nobody in their right mind would want.

Alfred and Klara hit it off like hydrogen peroxide and sodium iodide (if you're too lazy to click the link, it means they don't get along), but fortunately Alfred has a secret.  See, he's been corresponding with a woman he's never met thanks to a personal ad, and he's getting up the nerve to finally meet her.

Yes, people, if you've seen the movie You've Got Mail, you know what the twist is.  I'm not even going to try to avoid spoiling it partly because it was turned into one of the biggest cliches in movies thanks to lazy screenwriting in later decades, but because it came out in 1940.  You had your chance, world!

So why am I talking about it now?  Well, two reasons.  The first is that I really don't think they can make this movie and keep it the same.  They have one of the most American actors playing a store employee in Budapest and Jimmy Stewart, bless him, doesn't even seem to try to have any kind of accent.  In fact, very few people have any trace of accent outside of one or two, and their accents aren't really what I would think of as "Budapestian" or "Hungarian."

Watch the trailer for yourself, see what you think.

So first off, if you were going to film this today, you'd probably have to have, I don't know, at least one person with an authentic Hungarian accent.   I'm just saying.

The second part is that, well, it's Hungary.  In 1940.  Christmas in 1940, meaning we were almost into the year that Hungary joined Germany to fight Russia and four years before Germany just flat-out invaded Hungary.  There's almost no politics in this film, partly because it doesn't fit the story, but also because I believe most people in Hollywood (and the United States for that matter) didn't really care what was going on in Hungary at the time.

Today, though, there would be political undercurrents everywhere.

There is a third reason I'm talking about the movie, and it's that, as you might expect from a movie with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film's really good.  It's considered the best film by director Ernst Lubitsch and is based off of the play Parfumerie, written in 1937 by Miklos Laszlo.  It has a complex web of side plots surrounding the interactions between Alfred and Klara, from the ambitions of a delivery boy, investigations of infidelity, hirings and firings of employees, and lots of other story threads that weave and overlap each other but never become a complex knot that the script needs to rip apart to try to get back on track.

Regarded as one of the best movies ever made (seriously, check out how many "greatest film" lists it makes, including being added to the National Film Registry), the film still holds up by being sweet and sincere.  The characters don't try to overly dramatize their scenes, and there are some really powerful moments that feel more genuine than, say, Kristin Kreuk attempting to cry.  The romance is sweet, and you know fully well where it's going by the time the film reaches the end (wisely ending at the right moment and not dragging it out further), and it's just enjoyable to watch Jimmy Stewart play his nice guy persona against an actress who can keep up with him, and both Stewart and Sullavan were considered some of the top talent at MGM at the time.

It's important to remember that in the days this film was being made often actors would be assigned projects, it would be rare for a director or actor to get to pick and choose what they would get to make.  In this case (at least, based on an introduction from TCM one time), it turns out that Lubitsch wanted both Stewart and Sullavan right from the get-go for the film but neither was available.  Instead of casting two other actors, he instead opted to wait until they were both free and able to devote their time to it.  The care and attention shows in this film, as there are almost no wasted shots that could be trimmed out, and the setting, lighting, and acting all show how much attention Lubitsch spent on what he would later claim was his greatest work.

You can probably find it free to watch somewhere, but if you stumble upon a copy of it on DVD, I say why not pick it up for the holidays next year?  It's not Christmas in the same way Jingle All The Way or The Santa Clause is, but if you'd choose to watch those movies over this one, again, I can't really help you.

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