This is Lubitsch? This bunch of shabby clerks suffering under a mercurial, tyrannical boss? Where’s the glam? Where’s the careless fun? Lubitsch’s last picture for Paramount (Angel, 1937) had flopped. As he diagnosed the problem, the public had tired of the romantic antics of the ritzy rich. They wanted to see the same working-class problems they themselves faced in a troubled economy. And that’s what he gave them in The Shop Around the Corner.
But he remains Lubitsch with his clocks and doors. His set has a multitude of doors—the whole first sequence takes place in front of a door and ends with the opening of that door. We don’t have the usual Lubitsch clocks, but we have a lot of references to time: the store openings and closings, overtime, date time, and of course aging. They give the film the distinctive Lubitsch poignancy. And we see the plot devices Lubitsch likes: confusions about identity; miscommunication; and misperceptions of reality.
Set in Budapest, really Lubitschland, the film takes place almost entirely in or in front of the gift-and-leather shop of Matuschek and Co. Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan) is the boss and indeed bossy. In the opening sequence, the staff arrives before the boss and questions Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) who has had the unprecedented honor of being invited to the Matuscheks’ house for dinner. The boss comes last, and clearly, Mr. Matuschek is the arbitrary ruler of this little kingdom. “Good morning, Mr. Matuschek.” “Yes, Mr. Matuschek.” “Certainly, Mr. Matuschek.” As in America in 1940, outside of the shop “millions of people are out of work.” The tail end of the Great Depression gives Matuschek his absolute power over his vulnerable employees.
Even before the box inquisition, though, the opening sequence gives us the dynamics of Matuschek & Co. The staff arrives before the boss. The first one we see is errand boy Pepi. (William Bryant). He’s the opening shot of the film, whistling as he rides the company bicycle to work. A happy proto-capitalist, brash, ambitious, ever quick to be the one to open Mr. Matuschek’s taxi door, he’s confident that someday he’ll be another Matuschek.
Matuschek is testy and assertive in his mistakes. Lubitsch develops his and his clerks’ personalities in an opening episode. Matuschek asks for their “honest opinion” about the sales possibilities for a cigarette box covered in fake leather that plays Ochi Tchornya every time you open it. But he is really asking for them to confirm his own enthusiasm for the boxes. Lubitsch uses the episode to develop the characters.
The first clerk we see is Pirovitch (Felix Bressart). Fifty-ish? He looks old for a man with a baby at home. When Matuschek announces he wants an honest opinion, Pirovitch hides in the stockroom. He serves as a weak but kindly father-figure to Kralik, offering advice with the wisdom of family experience and age.
Next, Kralik. Played by Jimmy Stewart, he’s obviously the romantic lead and stammeringly bold in Stewart’s manner. He alone was invited for dinner at Mr. Matuschek’s house the night before. The others are both envious and curious. He alone dares to contradict the boss about the boxes, for he is Matuschek’s favorite, almost like a son, we’re told. And he has a secret: he is perhaps in love with a pen pal, a romantic young woman whose personal ad he answered. They write each other about books and love, each playing to the other’s ideals.
Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut). He arrives in the morning in a taxi like the boss. But never after him! He is a dandy who flashes his money and hints at amatory escapades. Within the store, he toadies and snitches shamelessly to Matuschek. When asked for his honest opinion about the boxes, he all too eagerly confirms the boss’s.
And there are two female clerks who play only supporting roles. As the movie goes on, different people speak of this cadre as a “family,” presumably to be contrasted with the real families of Pirovitch and Matuschek. He is the only one to have a private space in this store where the others are hardly ever alone.
Then there is Klara (Margaret Sullavan) the romantic heroine. She first appears as a slightly shabby young woman (a look Lubitsch exaggerated by fading her coat and altering it so it didn’t fit). She is hoping for a job at Matuschek & Co., but both Kralik and Matuschek mistake her for a customer and fawn over her. When they realize their mistake, they are understandably huffy. But Klara manages to sell one of the questionable boxes. She persuades a plump lady that it is a candy box, and its playing Ochi Tchornya every time she opens it will cut down her candy intake. Matuschek abruptly hires her.
In the best tradition of the romcom, she and Kralik grate on each other right away. But each naively delights in the romantic ideals in the letters from their pen pals. Sly old Pirovitch hides his skepticism when Kralik tells him he knows this girl is “no ordinary girl” from just four letters. The letters explicitly exclude the physical: “‘Are you tall? Are you short? Are your eyes blue? Are they brown? Don’t tell me. What does it matter so long as our minds meet?’” Kralik delights in this which Klara wrote. To any experienced moviegoer, the job of the film has obviously become bringing these two down to earth.
I don’t believe there are such things as “spoilers,” but if you do, there are SPOILERS BELOW. Lots of them!
The economic issues play out in a minor tragedy. Tension grows between Matuschek and Kralik and finally the boss fires him. This is treated as a tragedy by the others (except Vadas). And now the sexual undercurrents come to the fore.
Despondent, Kralik goes off to his first meeting with his unknown inamorata and finds—Klara. The two spar and insult each other, and he leaves. He now knows, but she does not, that they have been writing these ridiculously high-flown letters to each other. Interestingly, the books Klara reads deal with wandering wives, Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary, while Kralik reads Crime and Punishment—a foreshadowing..
Matuschek finds that Mrs. Matuschek, to whom he has been devoted for twenty-two years, has been getting it on with someone, but not, as he had suspected, with Kralik—with the oily Vadas. A much humbled Matuschek is hospitalized after a suicide attempt. He brings Kralic back to Matuschek & Co., promotes him to manager, and tells him to fire Vadas. He does—gratifyingly.
For Klara, Kralik as manager looks like a disaster, but Kralik now turns kindly. He needs to bring her down to earth. How? Purest Lubitsch: he brings in the physical. He says he has met Klara’s idealized correspondent, a Mr. Popkin, and he is fat, bald, elderly, morose, out of a job, and planning to live on Klara’s salary. Despairing, Klara is open to Kralik's declarations.
Bloggers tag this film as “pure undiluted Christmas sweetness,” while critics glowingly point to the benevolence that permeates the ending. Mr. Matuschek hands out generous bonuses and invites the lowest staff member, the new errand boy, Rudy (Charles Smith), to have dinner with him. And, of course, Kralik and Klara get together. The final shot, standard Hollywood, is their kiss. In Lubitsch’s world, the romantic and sexual issues outweigh the economic. Or, perhaps we should say “family” issues, for the characters call the store staff a “family.”
We begin with an authoritarian father and his “children,” i.e., his cowering employees. In the arc of the film “sons” take over from the father in three ways. Most obviously, the sexual son Vadas cuckolds him, breaking up his marriage and tempting him to suicide. And Vadas is suitably punished for his misdeeds. In the main plot, Kralik takes over from the now wounded Matuschek, managing the store, punishing the misbehaving son Vadas, and asserting his own sexuality with Klara. Third, delivery boy Pepi plays the son who rescues the father in another familiar oedipal theme. Pepi now becomes authoritarian toward his own “son,” the new delivery boy Rudy. Finally, the ultimate father, Matuschek, bestows big bonuses on all and a loving Christmas dinner on this lowest “son” on the totem pole, Rudy. Father and sons, all but the sexual/bad one, are at one. A favorite American ending.
And where is the female—the mother, if you will—in all this? One female, the demanding, adulterous Mrs. Matuschek is censored out. We never see her. The other is, of course, Klara, who must be discreetly converted from a head-in-the-clouds idealism to a down-to-earth physicality—sex but legitimated sex and that offscreen. This is, after all, Hollywood.
Many critics have expressed their pleasure at the pervasive good will in the finale of The Shop Around the Corner. (A more cynical critic like me might call it schmaltz—but why would I do that?) I think it comes about through this happy-happy resolution of common oedipal fantasies: the defeat and de-sexualizing of a dictatorial father; the son achieving power and generationally appropriate sexuality.
At the same time, one has to wonder what does that kind of psychological reading mean? Movies do not have oedipal fantasies; people do. To what person or persons do these theoretically unconscious fantasies and their resolution belong? Lubitsch and his screenwriter Samson Raphaelson? They consciously thought of them, but were they part of their unconscious mental life? We’ll never know. The characters? Hardly. They are mere fictions. So these fantasies must be the audience’s. Freud claimed that such fantasies were universal, at least for males, and he would say that’s why we (at least the males among us) like the movie.
Maybe the fantasies are universal, but do we need to go so far? Isn’t it likely that anybody, male or female, would feel good about an authoritarian “father” and his beaten-down “sons” becoming affectionate? But do we see Mr. Matuschek as a father and his cowed employees as sons? I think it’s fair to say that any of us would feel toward Mr. Matuschek at the opening of the film as to authoritarians we encountered early in life: if not a father, then a mother, a demanding teacher, someone in charge at home, a baby-sitter, a cleric—anyone in a position of authority. We might well respond to the dominated “children” of Matuschek’s “family” through childhood experiences of our own of being cowed and afraid of such a person. And we might rejoice at that despotic “father” getting his come-uppance, and the sons—we—triumphing while the father turns benevolent.
So far as The Shop Around the Corner is concerned, I think such a reading tells us that this film doesn’t just instance “the Lubitsch touch.” Complete and trim and witty, it also taps into some of our deepest fears and hopes. It plays with issues economic, romantic, and psychological, themes that mattered to its audiences in 1940 and matter now. Lubitsch was so much more than just a master of sexual innuendo.