Every year Ernest Lubitsch’s great, gentle comedy threatens to eclipse It’s a Wonderful Time‘s place as the best Christmas movie; maybe it has. Released in 1940, The Shop Around the Corner is one of the few perfect films in existence, its performances, Samuel Raphaelson script, and, most importantly, pace combining into a numinous whole. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan’s duets must be what people hear in opera. Matt Connolly:
So much of The Shop Around the Corner rests upon a knowing—and knowingly empathetic—conception of how work fosters relationships at once tender and uneasy. It’s one of the film’s great unspoken jokes that, though we hear snippets of their poetry-laden letters to one another, it is Alfred and Klara’s snappish workplace repartee that let us know how truly aligned they are in intellect and emotional temperament.
A few years ago, David Thomson wrote, “This is a comedy in which earnestness or gravity endangers true love.” He could have been referring to Trouble in Paradise, in which Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall bon mot their way into each other’s beds.
In a Film Comment that I can’t find online, Kent Jones hailed The Shop Around the Corner as one the most honest picture about the workplace:
Lubitsch knows that in the workplace, embarrassments and self-negations are not signs of faulty character but necessary survival skills. They’re not to be applauded, but they’re not to be judged either. Nor, in the end, is[Frank] Morgan’s pomp, or his embarrassed reluctance to apologize for his abuses of power. The workplace is inherently imbalanced, but when it’s not subject to top-down corporate fascism or exploitation, it’s also a site of never-ending negotiation that occasionally settles, for a brief interlude, in a suspended state that resembles democracy. It’s just as exquisite, and ephemeral, as the spell cast by the Red Shoes ballet troupe. There is sentiment in The Shop Around the Corner, but there is no sentimentality. It is good-natured but it is also unerringly wise. The film’s unparalleled grace is inseparable from the pettiness of its characters, which shifts unnoticed into magnanimity over the course of time. And then, perhaps we can imagine it shifting back again at a later date.
Now get to watching.