Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
A former actor throughout the 1910s, the German-born Ernst Lubitsch gradually set his sights on becoming a film director. His first feature film was made in 1918 and proved to be successful at the German box office. Lubitsch went on to enjoy great success fluctuating between making grand historical dramas and escapist comedies. The director’s reputation grew rapidly, with the New York Times naming three of his films on the list of 15 most important movies of 1921.
In 1922, Lubitsch left Germany and set sail for Hollywood. The famed silent film actress Mary Pickford contracted him as the director for her next movie, Rosita. While the movie was heralded with critical praise and success at the box office, Lubitsch and Pickford fought regularly during filming. His contract was not renewed, and instead the director signed a lucrative, three-year, six-picture deal with Warner Brothers. Lubitsch was guaranteed full control including final cut on his films, and his pick of cast and crew. While at Warner Brothers, the director cemented his role as a filmmaker of sophisticated comedies. However, Lubitsch’s films were only modestly successful. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) bought out the rest of the filmmaker’s contract at Warner Brothers, just as cinema was going through its biggest transition.
As movie theaters installed sound equipment for talkies, Lubitsch seized upon the opportunity to direct a new genre: musicals. These films were hailed as masterpieces by critics, gaining the director a solid foundation of support for his work. Next, Lubitsch directed a string of romantic comedies. In 1935, he was appointed the production manager at Paramount Pictures, the only major Hollywood director running a studio at the time. Lubitsch oversaw the production of sixty different films while simultaneously continuing to produce his own. After only a year on the job, the director was fired from the position (citing problems with assigning responsibility) and returned to filmmaking full-time. Lubitsch returned to MGM in 1939 and after casting famed actress Greta Garbo in her first real comedy film, the filmmaker set his sights on directing what many consider a holiday classic, The Shop Around the Corner.
The Shop Around the Corner is a classic example of a “comedy with manners.” The sentimental romantic-comedy centers around two co-workers, Klara (Margaret Sullavan) and Alfred (Jimmy Stewart), who are employed at a leather goods shop in Budapest, Hungary. Klara and Alfred bicker constantly, never seeing eye to eye on anything. As the film unfolds, it is revealed that the two are unknowingly each other’s pen-pal sweethearts. The pair have been corresponding with each other ever since Alfred came across an anonymous ad (Klara’s) in the newspaper. As Christmas approaches, the pen pals write to each other and plan to actually meet in person for the first time.
The film itself is an example of what’s known as the “Lubitsch touch” by film historians and critics. Biographer Scott Eyman explained the term as “the comedy of manners and the society in which it transpired, a world of delicate sangfroid, where a breach of sexual or social propriety and the appropriate response are ritualized, but in unexpected ways, where the basest things are discussed in elegant whispers.” The Shop Around the Corner exemplifies this signature style best. Stewart and Sullavan play their roles with great affection and tenderness. The film, adapted from a Hungarian play titled Parfumerie, goes to great lengths to strip itself of glamour and maintain a sense of poise and ordinariness. The two leads play the everyman and woman; their love letters to each other cut through the daily melancholy of life and transform it into something more fulfilling.
Earning $380,000 abroad at a time when American films were performing below expectations in Europe, The Shop Around the Corner became a surprise hit. Although It’s a Wonderful Life may be the most well-known Jimmy Stewart movie, this film went on to inspire countless others. A musical remake of the film, In the Good Old Summertime, was made in 1949 starring Judy Garland. Director Nora Ephron’s much loved rom-com You’ve Got Mail also borrows heavily from The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch’s classic romantic comedy combines the two struggles every person goes through: the ideal life vs. reality. The Shop Around the Corner perfectly balances both to achieve something rare in movies, a satisfying and well-deserved happy ending.
All scenes in the film were reportedly shot in sequential order.
Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan were very good friends for years before making the film. They were both in a summer stock company perviously called the University Players. Stewart realized his potential as an actor while working with them. He followed Sullavan (along with actor Henry Fonda) to New York in hopes of beginning an acting career.
Ernst Lubitsch purchased the rights to the play that The Shop Around the Corner is based on for a mere $7,500.
What’s your favorite holiday film? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.