Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Ernest Lubitsch’s effervescent romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is an enduring masterwork of subtle surface politeness under which lusty home fires rage. Based on Miklos Laszlo's 1937 Hungarian play, Parfumerie, the tale as re-scripted by Samson Raphaelson begins in turn of the century Budapest and Matuschek's Gift Shop; the center of the universe – at least for its select group of loyal employees.

These include the owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan), his devoted right hand, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), slippery sales and lady’s man, Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) and wistful Pirovitch (Felix Bressart).

Hugo is a benevolent boss, though not above his own fits of impatience and flustered blustering. Alfred’s advancement at the shop is hindered with the arrival of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) – a headstrong creature who bullies her way into a position at the store. Before long she and Alfred are bumping heads on practically every modest issue that concerns the shop's daily operations.

A further crimp to Alfred’s ambitions surfaces when Hugo suspects him of having an affair with his wife – a subplot that proves erroneous but temporarily gets Al’ fired. Yet, the greatest bit of irony springs forth from Al and Klara’s tempestuous relationship. You see, the two have been corresponding through letters on a blind date that seems kismet for marriage – that is, until Al discovers the truth and thereafter does everything he can to goad Klara into liking him.

Director Lubtisch’s uncanny knack for transforming such contrite drivel into the epitome of chic good taste is working overtime here – performing a clever cakewalk between all these nimble narrative threads that seamlessly draw the whole story to its ‘lighter than air’ satisfactory conclusion. What is most remarkable about the film today is how much of its elusive charm remains intact and palpable to contemporary tastes.

Stewart and Sullivan share genuine on screen chemistry of the highest order; selling their artistic wares alongside the shop's holiday gifts and making the entire enterprise one of sweetness and light, though never dribbling saccharine. Frank Morgan is a befuddled delight - just the sort of nonsensical boss with a heart of gold that one might wish for.

Hollywood never lets a good idea go, however, and in 1949 this film was remade to disastrous effect as an utterly charm free musical starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson; In the Good Old Summertime. In 1998 director Nora Ephron tried to duplicate the escapist magic of the original with You’ve Got Mail - pitting a rivalry between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as two competitive book sellers in New York City. Again, it didn’t work.

Which brings this reviewer to a long overdue assumption about classic movies: that their inimitable brand of style, romance and beauty are elegant trappings from some forgotten past in American cinema best resurrected by perennial viewings of the original films rather than abysmally second rate remakes that have neither the grace nor the guts to leave well enough alone!

Warner Home Video’s DVD is, in a word, marvellous. The benefactor of a meticulous digital restoration, the film looks years younger than it ought, with a refined B&W image, exemplary contrasted gray scale and very smooth image quality throughout. Occasionally, edge enhancement creeps into this otherwise reference quality disc that shows zero signs of age related artefacts. The audio is mono but very nicely restored and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer. Note – the DVD jacket advertises trailers for the two subsequent remakes but these are not included on the disc.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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