It seems especially sacrilegious that the greatest totem of that old gripe, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” as The Shop Around the Corner is often thought to be, should be remade several times, but one takes comfort in the failure of the two best-known efforts (1949’s In the Good Old Summertime and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail) to recast the old Lubitsch spell. We may try to make the old things new, but we had one Lubitsch, he’s long gone, and we aren’t getting another one. To their nominal credit, the looseness in each remake’s setting and circumstances excuses whatever poaching charges one might otherwise wish to level against them. Originally sourced from Miklós László’s 1936 play, about the only thing that remains consistent across the various versions is the central gimmick, a vaguely O. Henry-esque, mutual ignorance on the part of two business rivals who wage petty warfare during the workday, but, unbeknownst even to each other, carry on a courtship via letters.
Not quite “The Gift of the Magi,” the charm of the gimmick in Lubitsch’s take (directing a script by Samuel Raphaelson, who had collaborated with the German-born filmmaker on comedies and melodramas alike) is passed over quickly in favor of studying both its effects on those involved, as well as the dynamics of the workplace at large. Radiating perhaps even more brightly than the burgeoning romance between Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), employees at a modest Hungarian gift shop, is Lubitsch’s sense of the shop itself, no longer applying his famed “Lubitsch touch” on thinly concealed sexual flirtations between the likes of Maurice Chevalier and Miriam Hopkins, or Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis, but, without a hiccup, using his legendary intuition to recreate the delicate organism of a small business and the men and women who subsist on it.
Matuschek and company, led by the imperious Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan, permanently flabbergasted in every way except his impeccable appearance), is just the sort of shop that seems to exist, even if you should find its kind today, in perpetual twilight. Its salespeople sink or swim based on their ability to sell knick-knacks and tchochkes that aren’t as good as they appear, to clientele who aren’t as well off as they think, in a culture whose seemingly deathless sense of refinement was about to disintegrate, more or less forever. The young Lubitsch himself worked in just such a place, his father’s tailoring business, before pursuing a career in acting that would eventually lead him to making pictures, first in Germany, then in Hollywood. He made very few films about labor; his most charming classics covered the lives and loves of the idle rich, or else the occasional gentleman thief, or the urbane starving artists. It’s only natural that the gravity of The Shop Around the Corner, around which all bodies orbit, is a father type, a semi-benign despot, regarded by all with a little love and a lot of fear.
It’s the centrality of Matuschek in the invisible courtship between Sullavan and Stewart that gives the script a definite, mechanical integrity that’s anything but superfluous, despite the film’s understandable reputation as a light bauble in the Danube-by-way-of-downtown-Burbank tradition. When the shop owner, already seething from unspoken suspicions of his wife’s infidelity, requires his entire staff to stay late in order to rearrange the shop window, his lead salesman, Kralik, is forced practically to the point of insubordination in order to keep a dinner date, where he intends to meet his correspondent for the first time.
Only moments before, Kralik and his friend, Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), are seen discussing the matter. Pirovitch, already aware of the mailbox romance, counsels Kralik against his temptations to mutiny against Matuschek’s orders, saying to him softly, “Think about it. Those were nice letters.” I know of very few finer points of the “Lubitsch touch” than Pirovitch making clear, in seven words, that Kralik’s possible loss of employment may be far more catastrophic for a budding romance than his failure to keep a single dinner date.
But Kralik, played by Stewart in one of his earliest archetypal roles, is cursed with an unbreakable, mule-headed honesty that, paradoxically, makes him a kind of leader in the eyes of the other employees, as well as a thorn in the side of the two people upon which he depends the most for any sense of purpose: his boss, and the girl he doesn’t know he loves. It’s in the elaborate structure of ignorance and double-blinds that lays bare for the audience certain, specific ironies of human nature, i.e. a veritable rumpus room for a filmmaker like Lubitsch. Kralik will find out that Klara is his pen-and-ink paramour, but the reveal is far less important than the catastrophe that precedes it—when he’s prepared to risk his professional situation for a very long shot at romance that would be poorly served were he to enter the ranks of the unemployed. It’s this blindness that also handicaps Matuschek, who would rather believe that Kralik, the best man he has on payroll, is, by virtue of being the most irritating, the one making time with his wife, instead of the real culprit, the superficially polite but intolerably gossipy kiss-ass Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut).
Of the many romantic comedy stories that depend on withholding crucial information from its characters until the best and latest possible moments, The Shop Around the Corner lowers the boom fairly early on, rendering the second half virtually weightless. The big double-crisis (Matuschek’s domestic strife, Kralik’s dismissal) is averted, and what remains of the script is a series of payoffs, each less spectacular than the one before, like a sequence of bittersweet last looks before locking up a store for a long holiday weekend. There are no twists of character or narrative rug-pulls. Its characters are temporarily unable to believe that a curved road is actually straight, that good people are actually good, that bad people are not so great, or, to paraphrase Blake, when the doors of misperception are eventually cleansed, everything appears to Lubitschian heroes as it is: wonderful.