Criterion Prediction #120: The Shop Around the Corner, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Shop Around the Corner
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Margaret Sullivan, James Stewart, Sara Haden, Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart
Synopsis: Klara (Sullivan) and Alfred (Stewart) work together in a gift shop. In person, they can’t stand one another; however, as anonymous pen pals, they are simultaneously falling in love.
Critique: What is the Lubitsch touch? It should be easy to describe, his graceful humor and technical prowess and dramatic fluid flare is practically a gold standard for generations of directors, it’s in the ether of Billy Wilder’s sober, serious comedies that often contained suicide, love, and humor, or the unkempt pace and zaniness that embodied the work of Preston Sturges. You can trace the articulately skewed characters and narratives that populate Lubitsch’s work forward to the Coen Brothers. His wry eloquence was perhaps most impactful in crafting mature and intelligent romantic comedies, and the indelible The Shop Around the Corner, the film Lubitsch considered his finest is one of his most significant contributions in shaping modern cinema.
Without a doubt, a masterful director helms The Shop Around the Corner but there’s also the star power of Margaret Sullivan and a young James Stewart. Their chemistry shines against the gaggle of players who form Lubitsch’s stock company. Stewart’s merriment and everyman charm would settle into our collective consciousness as he became an iconic actor, but these earlier performances (this and his supporting role in After the Thin Man) are crackling with energy, and the chemistry between he and Sullivan is brimming with casual enthusiasm. There’s a swift flow to the film. While tensions mount and there are emotional highs and lows, the action is contained to the shop and adhering to the structure of a (nearly) single setting gives The Shop Around the Corner an unemphatic aesthetic sense of balance and security. Our home, as it is for the characters, is their place of employment at Matuschek and Company. Their jobs feel real; the interactions, banter and interpersonal dynamics have a ring of authenticity. Lubitsch blends the staginess of Laszlo’s play with the idiosyncratic quality of gentle humor and shrewdly punctuated dialogue. There is heart and laughter in every scene. The approachable sophistication in realizing its dramatized humor balanced with comedic gravitas leaves the best kind of taste in your mouth, making The Shop Around the Corner a timeless classic.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Criterion is on a roll with their restorations for the past couple years. Le Samourai, The Complete Monterey Pop Collection, General Idi Amin Dada, Tokyo Olympiad (as part of the 100 Years of Olympics set), The Silence of the Lambs, Sid and Nancy, Good Morning; the list goes on. One can’t complain about Criterion’s dedication to raising their standards, the only couple of overlooked strays are the two, long relegated to DVD releases of Heaven Can Wait, and Trouble in Paradise. Meanwhile, Lubitsch’s work has been on the rise in the collection with Design for Living and To Be or Not to Be. Calibrating the Lubitsch canon by upgrading the earlier spine numbers and including his seminal The Shop Around the Corner would pad out the director’s presence in the collection.