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[whitespace] The Shop Around the Corner
All's Fair in Work and Love: Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

The romantic classic 'The Shop Around the Corner' is the source for 'You Have Mail'

By Richard von Busack

WHY DOES THIS false version of Eastern Europe, assembled at the MGM studio in Culver City, seem so easy to believe? The Shop Around the Corner (1940)--just remade by Nora Ephron as the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You've Got Mail--is a comedy without Budapest location photography, but Ernst Lubitsch's direction makes Magyars out of Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy in the finest classic style--light, sophisticated and glowing with William Daniels' creamy lighting in the close-ups. But Daniels also records the dingy cloakrooms at the shop, and the language is Old-World formal. In the dialogue, you can hear the careful locutions of men and women who don't want to be misunderstood by authority. In Stewart's dry, detached characterization, you'll recognize something like the icy pride of Hungary's own Peter Lorre.

Alfred Kralik (Stewart) enters, dyspeptic from some inferior goose-liver pâté; soon, he'll have more cause for heartburn. The young man is the best salesclerk at Matuschek and Company, a small notions store. Today, a woman he thought was a customer, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), turns out to be just another job seeker. Klara is hired on as a saleswoman, to Alfred's disgust. The rivalry between the two clerks is the backbone of the story, yet the film is actually a heavenly romance. Both Klara and Alfred are conducting affairs through letters with strangers; neither ever realizes that his/her soul mate is actually the colleague he/she is spatting with all the live-long day. This confectionery old-movie plot is made stinging and smart by Lubitsch's views of life at Matuschek and Company. We never even see any character's home in this film; one of the more touching scenes is Matuschek's own realization that he has no home other than his store.

Is The Shop Around the Corner a reflection of Lubitsch's work at MGM? Matuschek and Company has its star, Alfred. The employees include a tragic, Hollywood-quality yes man (the fine comic actor Felix Bressart) and a brash young delivery boy, a Mickey Rooney-like kid on the make (William Tracy): "I'd call myself a contact person. I keep contact between the customers and Matuschek and Company. On a bicycle." Ferencz (Joseph Schildkraut) is the company fink, advancing himself by passing gossip and sleeping his way to the top. Mr. Matuschek, the owner (Frank Morgan), could well be Louis B. Mayer as he envisioned himself--paternal, no-nonsense, lovable. Matuschek's troubles make him subject to poor business decisions--such as the purchase of a gross of leatherette cigarette boxes that tinkle out the Russian lament "Ochi Tchorny." (Sullavan's sale of one of these unsellable trinkets to a fur-bedecked matron is a memorably crafty bit.) Lubitsch was bold to make a Christmas movie about retail work--a reminder of how love and generosity have to fight for a place amid pestering customers, sagging sales and mandatory overtime. Speaking of work, Nora Ephron certainly has her work cut out for her.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, written by Nikolaus Laszlo, Samson Raphaelson and Ben Hecht, photographed by William Daniels and starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, plays Dec. 11-23 with Miracle on 34th Street at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto.

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From the December 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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