The Shop Around the Corner: The Awkward Precursor to

For The Shop Around the Corner, we journey to picturesque Budapest, Hungary with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (both of whom could not be more Hungarian).  Clocking in at #196, this 1940 romantic comedy is an Ernst Lubitsch classic.

Alfred Kralik (Stewart) is a kind but dissatisfied clerk at a leather goods store, who has been exchanging letters with a girl and has fallen in love with her.  I'm going to assume that this was a common thing to do back in the day, and not nearly as weird as I find it.  Great granddaddy of internet dating?

There's a new girl, Klara, who is able to talk her way into a job at his store and proceeds to establish the sort of antagonistic relationship with Kralik that invariably seems to end with babymaking.  Sexual tension so thick you could cut it with a knife.

There's a silly little subplot where Kralik's boss is convinced that he's been sleeping with his wife.  This seems to be an easily resolved misunderstanding - when Kralik asks his boss for the five millionth time why he's angry and firing him, the boss could always just...tell him.  And then Kralik could say the 1940 equivalent of, "Naw y'all that's bullshit", and the boss could be like, "Oh my bad nevermind then you can keep your job." Simple enough.

But if that had happened, Kralik would have been on time for his romantic rendezvous with Mystery Date, and would have found out that she was *shudder gasp* Klara!

As it is, being late gives him the chance to scope out the room and see Klara before she can see him.  Rather than dealing with this oh-so-precious coincidence honestly, Kralik decides to go talk to Klara, but not tell her that he's her secret snail mail boyfriend.  Why in God's name why must this tomfoolery and deception continue?  Why can't he just tell her the truth?  Why does everything have to be so complicated and wrought with misunderstandings?

That's easy.  Kralik and Klara are still at the point in their story arch where they straight up don't like each other.  If Kralik goes in there and tells her that they've been writing passionate love letters to one another, well...that's just kind of awkward.  They need the last hour of the film so that they can get to a point where they kinda sorta maybe like like each other.  So even though it doesn't make much sense in the context of the story, I will allow it, for the greater good of the narrative structure.  You're welcome, Ernst Lubitsch.

Luckily for Kralik, Boss Man discovers that it was one of his other employees who was sleeping with his wife.  Coming as a shock to absolutely no one, the perpetrator was the sketchy smooth talking guy no one likes.  Quelle surprise.

Unfortunately, this discovery leads Mr Matuschek to attempt suicide.  But luck appears to be on Kralik’s side again – Matuschek is in no condition to return to work, and he appoints Kralik as store manager in his absence.  Kralik, in the meantime, is inexplicably screwing with Klara’s head.  The guy goes so far as to take advantage of the fact that she’s never seen her lover, and he convinces her that he’s bald, fat, unemployed, among other things.  But then on Christmas Eve, he decides that enough is enough (apparently Jimmy Stewart can only be creepy and manipulative for so long) and he reveals that he’s the one writing letters to her.  She is happy…apparently she had a major crush on him when she first started working at the store.  

Who knew hostility was the surest sign of love?  He kind of screwed with her mind though – at that point I think she would have been relieved for her boyfriend to be anyone besides the brain dead lowlife Kralik was describing.  But hey, who am I to judge, right?  They seem happy enough, and indulge in a chaste, Production Code approved no-longer-than-three-seconds kiss as the screen fades to black.

Random Musings:

  • Does anyone else find it a little insulting that Klara tells the fat woman that the reason the box plays music is to remind her that she’s a fat ass who eats too much candy?  I’m pretty sure I would be like:

  • Wow, I guess while I was getting a degree in European history I missed the massive exodus of Americans to Budapest.  Seriously though – how many non-American employees does this Hungarian mom-and-pop store hire anyway?  One?  Two?  (Answer: Two.  Joseph Schildkraut was from Austria-Hungary and Felix Bressart was from East Prussia.  Props for being born in countries that no longer exist.)

  • “I beg your pardon, how much is that belt in the window that says $2.95?” “$2.95.” “Oh no.”  Thank you, Jimmy Stewart, for that very brief yet accurate summation of my entire career in retail.

  • Is it just me, or is Jimmy Stewart kind of a little sexy when he’s not doing his idealistic, Capra-corn routine?  Bear in mind that it’s entirely possible that it’s just me.

  • I love the guy who runs and hides every time Mr Matuschek asks for an honest opinion.  Dude’s got middle management all over him.

  • I’ve got a working theory that it’s actually impossible for Jimmy Stewart to be mean.  Even when he was kicking that guy out of the store I kept thinking he was going to change his mind and try to convert the cheater with an impassioned speech about American ideals.  Just saying.

"I HATE YOU!  Aw shucks...I can't stay mad.  Hugs all around." - A made-up real Jimmy Stewart quote.

I liked this.  I like old romantic films to begin with, and the two leads have some nice chemistry.  They’re great when they’re snapping at each other.  And it’s nice to see a pre-war Jimmy Stewart get a chance to play a leading man who isn’t a total sap.  I loved the other employees at the store, especially Pirovitch (OMG someone actually attempted an accent!  He gets a cookie.) and Pepi Katona (his meteoric rise to clerk status was a definite highlight).  I wish we had gotten to see a bit more of the connection between the two leads as penpals.  It’s easy to see the chemistry between them when they’re arguing at work, but there feels like a huge disconnect between the characters and the letters they write.  They don’t seem like the same people.  And it rings a little false that Kralik would write letters that were so different from the personality he presents to the world – throughout the film his character seems like a cards on the table kind of guy.  In the end though, it’s hard to judge this film too harshly – although I’m still not sure I’ll ever forgive it for spawning the cloying, precious, cotton candy filled monstrosity of a remake starring the Hanks/Ryan duo from hell.

Thanks for reading, and come back hopefully soon for my next review of an as-yet-undecided film from the list! :)

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