It’s that time of year. Malls are packed, houses smell of pine, hot chocolate and stress and presents are fodder for last minute purchases or wrapping jobs. Christmas is just a handful of hours away, and with that comes the yearly viewing of classic Christmas films. Ranging from picks like It’s A Wonderful Life all the way to choices like Die Hard, there are a handful of films that one could dig through to see the very best that film has to offer pertaining to this holiday. However, there is one film, director Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner, that may very well be one of the best, but sadly most underrated, holiday films ever made.
Not a stranger to masterful Christmas tales, James Stewart stars here as Alfred Kralik, the top salesman for a Budapest gift shop owned by one Hugo Matuschek. When a woman comes busting in asking for a job, she is hired after proving her skill in selling a cigarette box that the shop has had issues with, as a candy box. However, when she is brought aboard the crew, his life, and the lives of the other workers, is never quite the same again. As the two butt heads over each of their respective levels of stubbornness (both are sky high, apparently), their worlds are slowly brought together in ways they never quite expected.
As with any comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch, the performances are truly the biggest star here. And as with any classic romantic comedy, the chemistry here is palpable between the two leads. Starring Stewart and the wonderful Margaret Sullavan, the romance at the center, and the comedy bred from it, is of the highest regard. Seemingly drawn out as two entirely different people hell bent on marrying the man and woman that they are pen pals with, they have love in their mind, but have just as much interest in poking and prodding one another with stubborn and sarcastic remarks.
Stewart is great here. Six years prior to It’s A Wonderful Life, Stewart is at his most energetic best in this film, and gives a performance that isn’t quite familiar to those accustomed to seeing him on the screen. Charming, arrogant (but sweetly so) and not afraid of a verbal confrontation, Stewart is paired perfectly with Sullavan, who herself gives a fun and confrontational performance. Never allowing Stewart’s Kralik to have the final word, she’s really quite fantastic, and a perfect foil for the actor romantically. Great supporting performances include Frank Morgan as the one and only Mr. Hugo Matuschek, Felix Bressart as Pirovitch and Joseph Schildkraut all of whom really add a great level of depth both emotionally and comedically to the film.
Written by Samson Raphaelson and (an uncredited) Ben Hecht, the film is both a triumph of the written word and also of the visual filmic language. Structurally, the film is superb. With a witty and heartfelt script, the cast is given top-notch prose to perform, that both plays to their strengths, and also portrays a truly emotionally resonant love story. The two are star-crossed lovers, but just have absolutely no idea that that’s the case. It’s a moving story to watch unfold, and Lubitsch gives paints an equally moving visual narrative on his canvas. Taking, for the most part, inside the confines of a small shop, the film is lusciously designed and features gorgeous black and white photography made even more vibrant due to the season in which it is set.
As far as Christmas-related films go, this is far and away the most superb. With gorgeous direction, resonant script work and fantastic comedic and emotional performances, this is the right blend of heart-felt romance, comedy and even a tad bit of true drama, The Shop Around The Corner is a luscious and still quite vital romantic comedy that firmly sits within the mold, while never feeling like a standard member of the genre. Best known as a film that’s spawned a cavalcade of remakes and other adaptations such as You’ve Got Mail, The Shop Around The Corner is a crowning achievement of not only the sub-sub-genre of Christmas film, but arguably one of the greatest romantic comedies ever committed to celluloid.
And what could Criterion do with a film like this? With Christmas not being as big a cloud hanging over the film as the one over films like It’s A Wonderful Life or the absolutely awful A Christmas Story, Shop could be a simple December/January release, and with Lubitsch firmly a member of the Collection, there could be a boat load of features available here. A retrospective, a commentary, something. Hell, even one of their bare bones releases, with a good transfer, could be a smash hit. That said, there are a few versions of the film floating around (two of which are TCM four pack releases), so it’s not too small a needle to hunt around the Amazon haystack for.