© 2012 by James Clark
It’s Christmas Eve, and Mr. Matuschek, owner of a department store in Budapest in the 1930’s, is looking in at one of his store windows on being discharged from hospital where he was treated for nervous exhaustion in the wake of an abortive suicide attempt due to his wife’s infidelity and his having dismissed from his staff a loyal and innocent man in mistakenly assuming he was the paramour. He overhears two ladies, also attracted by the contents of the window, being happily surprised by the cost of a briefcase. “My, my,” the old retailer exclaims. “I wonder how they can offer such low prices.” One of the ladies fires back, as they head on their way, “Well, if you don’t know, Mr. Matuschek, who should?”
That moment helps define the mixture of troubled hope and gently forgiving circumstances constituting the comedic nature of this film from 1940, which seems at one and the same time so much older and so much younger than it is. We receive here not so much a document of what our surroundings (what is just around the corner) are like but instead a semi-fantasy of the daily grind on behalf of material well-being, as enhanced by active aspiration to rare grace and love.
Director Ernst Lubitsch, as assisted by screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, has put into place a combination of the plausible and the implausible in order to distil a choice and daringly potable dramatic vintage in face of which to smile, perhaps laugh out loud and perhaps realize that a world of unexplored fun lies just beyond reach, but not necessarily forever absent. Early one morning, while the staff of Matuschek’s cool their heels on the pavement awaiting the arrival and door-opening on the part of the entrepreneur, one of them, a young man, Mr. Kralik, gets something of a workout and thereby holds our attention. He has alluded to dining the night before with the boss and his wife and now requires some bicarbonate of soda, prompting a colleague to spring into feigned startlement and possibly advantageous gossip that he finds fault with the boss’ wife’s cooking—which gambit prompts Kralik to go into defence attorney exertions to establish that he never said that Mrs. Kralik was a lousy cook, but merely admitted he had had a bit too much of the lady’s goose liver preparation. On getting onto the jobsite, he takes aside a more generously disposed fellow-retailer to let him in on something splendid going on in his life. “You come to a time in your life when you want to improve yourself…” Recently he came across an ad in a newspaper that sent him spinning into a world beyond faintly ridiculous self-promotion. “Modern girl wants to correspond with polite young man.” On going through the anonymous introductions, he hears from her a register of priorities confirming the sense of his agitation about improving himself above and beyond his skills as a salesman. (Though in trying to clarify what improvement would be, he includes, “Finding out how people live in Brazil.”) “Let’s not go into how we earn our daily bread… What does it matter how we look, so long as our minds meet? There are so many great and beautiful things in the world.”
Who should come into the shop that morning, looking for a job, but Klara Novak, a figure so alienated from secure employment, and so able to make sparks fly by way of witty articulation, that, by some kind of osmosis, we come to suppose that she is the unnamed and unseen source of Mr. Kralik’s dash to become much more than he has been. It is characteristic of the ironical comedy of The Shop around the Corner that this identity should be at the center of pronounced turbulence. The first person she encounters in the shop is Kralik, who, thinking she is about to buy something, treats her to a professional (and that includes polite) survey of the qualities of the handbag she was distractedly beholding. Soon she is confiding to him how desperate she is about earning her daily bread, and, in the ensuant skirmishes with both Kralik (who cites his boss’ being in a bad mood—in fact, a bad mood that has become chronic) and Matuschek himself, she reveals an employment history that includes every department store in town but this last one, and sidesteps the red flags in this issue with, “Well that’s another story” (but implying that she was subjected to sexual harassment). Prior to her arrival, Kralik and Matuschek had clashed over the latter’s enthusiasm for adding to their inventory a cigarette box which, on opening, spilled out the saccharine hit, “Ochi Chyornye,” its gypsy idiom and femme fatale component (the title in English being “Dark Eyes”) striking the young man as contrived, tacky and unmarketable, and striking the boss as irresistible. Thus the narrative kicks up a notch the sensual factor of what takes shape as a multilayered tug of war. Taking the low road, Klara sides with the boss (finding the music “Romantic”) and, in enthusing about the box attracts the attention of a plump lady who cringes about the music, at which point the counter-culturalist demonstrates a deep-seated affinity for mainstream haggling. The lady had naturally enough supposed the box was for candies, and Klara plays off of that interest to maintain that the repellency of the music would counter her gaining any more weight, a pivot that scores and lands her the job.
The preamble to fully disclosing that Klara and Kralik have much more in common than simply their names, that they come front and center in the large field of marathoners contesting the very tough course of sensual payoff, comes six months after the immature Springtime, on a snowy December day. It is a time she covers a bit later with, “I started here full of enthusiasm, but your oppression has made me hate this job.” (We get a foretaste of the souring inclinations of Kralik the idealist during the selling of the plump lady. When the latter turns thumbs down on “Ochi Chyornye” his face emits a rather unsettling gleam of triumph.) As they stand by idly awaiting the man with the key (a stance we see repeated often, indoors, in the routine longueurs of waiting for a customer to appear and relieve some painful boredom), Kralik shakes things up a bit by conveying to her their leader’s displeasure with one of her blouses. “It’s none of your business!” she snaps back. “If you want to look like a pony in the circus…” he mutters, his looking askance at bright colors once again, and almost imperceptibly, entangling him in the easily misplayed feature of an appointment with “great and beautiful things.”
At this nadir of their purchase upon generous wit, Kralik has just had another chat with his good-listener colleague, Pirovitch (a name alluding to his amusing but also disconcerting pirouetting away from possibly damaging controversy), expressing his excitement that, after much anxious hesitation, tonight he has a big dinner date with the oracle of minds meeting, whose channel of cultural brilliance has enlarged to include love between such sweethearts as they. “I’m scared. I haven’t slept for days. This girl thinks I’m the most wonderful person in the world… She is so far above other women in her understanding of love…” This girl, it becomes clear, is the one telling her female colleague, after Matuschek the Grinch takes one glimpse that morning at the Christmas window and demands that all hands have to stay after closing to make it rock, “I have an important date! I can’t stay!” By closing time, the boss, whose uncharacteristic moodiness puzzles his personnel, is ready to let her off the hook, if Kralik thinks he can do without her, Kralik presses his case for flying the coop (“I’ve never asked for a favor until now”) which functions as the last straw—all furloughs being cancelled—and soon Matuschek has fired his one-time leading light and called off the after-hours, in order to get the lowdown on his wife from a private detective. To be especially noted at this point is Kralik’s having given Karla the go-ahead (before flubbing it by pushing his own agenda), an indication of his having taken to heart, however unsteadily, the prospect of magnanimity radiating from the cultural sublimities they thrill to, on paper.
Kralik too was free to meet the girl of his dreams, but the brass tacks nightmare he had entered into had, for now, killed the magic for him. Notwithstanding, Pirovitch drags him to the restaurant and there the lover of love finds himself dragged into accelerated enlightenment, from which to deliver this saga to its comedic roots. Peering in at the window at Kralik’s request, to satisfy a disheartened curiosity about the unique force signalling her presence by a red carnation and a copy of Anna Karenina, Pirovitch broaches the earth-shattering displacement of his friend’s puerile default mode with, “If you don’t like Miss Novak, you won’t like that girl.” (He had started by saying, “She reminds me of Miss Novak,” a flesh and blood, error-prone subject Kralik dismissed as ridiculous in this celestial context). After a moment of incredulity, Kralik shows signs of being emboldened by the refreshing chaos that has overtaken his neat, effective little life of having the answer to domestic needs. (Pirovitch’s further remark on the earthquake, “But still, she wrote those letters,” keeps us abreast of the tempering of Kralik’s magnanimity. His response, “Yes. My misfortune…” confirms he has a long way to go.) Though just recently he had protested, “She’s expecting a pretty important man. I’m in no mood to act important tonight,” he now has the temerity to come up to Klara’s table, and ask, “Do you mind if I sit down,” and get pelted with, “Yes, I do mind! I have an important engagement.” Not yet able to handle such violence, he needles her with, “He’s late.” She ticks him off with, “He’ll be here. He’s so considerate you can’t imagine it.” He then becomes transparently inferior by insisting that he already has two job offers. Struggling to regain the high ground, he remarks on her book as an item he’s very familiar with, and tells her he’s read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (Matuschek’s spot presents an economy-size version of those concepts.) On her expressing surprise at this, he tries to reach her with gently stating that “We seldom scratch the surface of people we meet.” The pressure of the moment sends her into a spate of toxic rhetoric. “Well I know all about you. Instead of a heart, you have a cash register. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. Instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work.” (He had, within his strident reaction, unfortunately asked her if she’d read Madame Bovary, “by Zola,” and now she brutally remarks, “Madame Bovary is not by Zola.”) Singed by that flamethrower, he criticizes, “I must congratulate the way you express yourself. A very interesting mixture of poetry and meanness. You may have beautiful thoughts, but you certainly hide them.” He leaves her table, only to relocate at the next table, where he gamely remarks that the restaurant is playing “Ochi Chornye,” a song that reminds him of the charm of their first moments together. She ridicules the idea that there was any affection in that meeting, he blurts out that she’s headed for being an old maid, and she, after affecting insouciance—“I, an old maid? Why Mr. Kralik, you’re getting funnier by the minute!”—lashes out with, “You little insignificant clerk!”
On rushing to Mr. Matuschek’s hospital room later that night, and being fully reinstated as a valued employee and friend, Kralik hears his boss sadly marvel that he could have suspected him. “Jealousy…When that poison gets into a man’s mind…” We and Kralik can see that what’s in the air is the poison of vanity, a phenomenon which he has begun to study closely. (The invasive staffer who alludes to being good to and being rewarded by a rich “grandma,” is a simpering pretty-boy, convinced that his access to a gravy train is far superior to Kralik’s “insignificant” clerking.)
On being handed the managerial reins while Matuschek convalesces, one of his responsibilities is to fire Vadas, the younger man in Mrs. Matuschek’s life. Matuschek expressly advises discretion and poise in bringing this off—“We won’t lower ourselves…” Kralik, for all his bourgeoning circumspection and new-found depth, can’t resist lowering himself in lording it over his victim, and in this he demonstrates what a fearsome task he and Karla have embarked upon. He has Vadas perform a pointless, mindless and time-consuming task in the stockroom, and then ups the cruelty by flinging him across the showroom, in lieu of a letter of reference. To amplify his shortfall, we see the delivery boy on the phone, taunting the lady in question—an act the crude buffoonery of which sets in relief a tincture of real and rare comedy here missing in action. The scene shifts to Klara, despairing and suddenly looking old in finding no letter from her no-show golden boy. She suffers a bit of a breakdown herself, on the job, and Kralik regains his purchase upon generosity in providing her with a much sought-after mail contact from her supposedly ideal admirer, which explains that he had (gallantly, she insists) pulled away at the restaurant on seeing her with Kralik. At her bedside as this bit of a drop-off from Santa arrives, he (who had told her, “I feel almost like a father to our little family,” and heard her reply, sort of promisingly, “There’s a much bigger reason [for my trouble]…what you might call psychological,” to be rallied to bigger game by his saying, “…as long as it’s only psychological,” and subsequently snubbing him more politely than before in terms of, “It’s true you’re in the same room, but not on the same planet” [a bit of poetry the paradox of which he would very much appreciate]) gamely enjoys the very psychological brush-off she gives him, and delights in her brightening up at the “very good news.” The delicacy here of his letting her show herself as more than psychological, teases out a special irony, a special “Lubitsch wit,” as in her remark, rising to the possibility of gallantry in the no-show, “It’s difficult to explain a man like him to a man like you…”
Thus we’re back at Christmas Eve. Thanks to Pirovitch’s joining in the installation of a reign of love not envisaged by the original stage play’s overseeing a triumph of the protagonists’ psychologically bettering themselves by getting married, she opts for a Christmas wallet for her still unrecognized great hope (rather than her initial choice of a music box belting out an anthem to puffery). In the course of lobbying for that down-to-earth gift (as poetically informed by the leeway for side-by-side photos of friends-become-lovers) Kralik comes in for some reappraisal by her. “Why, Mr. Kralik. You surprise me! That’s very well expressed.” The little family has staged record sales that day, and a grateful Mr. Matuschek states without overblown sentiment, “This is my home. This is where I spent most of my life.” It’s also where Kralik and Karla will spend most of their life, a quite breathtakingly bold realization about the material complement of true, proportionate love and its aura of regally subtle comedy. Mr. Matuschek takes the all-alone, brand-new delivery boy out for a Christmas Eve dinner, leaving the two dear friends to at long last get on the same page. He asks her to model a necklace he’d bought for a special woman. She’s pleasantly surprised. She admits to having been physically attracted to him during her first days on the job. “You could have swept me off my feet!” (This proneness to get down is anticipated in Pirovitch’s noticing, through the restaurant window, “She’s dunking!”) Kralik can’t resist joshing her that her ideal man had come by earlier in the day, and that his chubby, bald demeanor impressed him a lot, as easily compensating for his being unemployed and prepared to have her support him. “Oh, this is terrible!” Klara cries out. “I had no idea he was materialistic!” Kralik completes a fine phrase (“True love is to be two, and yet one…”) that she recalls the correspondent mustering (and thereby winning her over along lines of her taste for paradox), and tells her it was stolen from Victor Hugo. “I thought he was perfect!” she moans. (The lovely ensemble work of Margaret Sullavan’s self-delighting, self-elevating smugness going off the rails and James Stewart’s discovering a rewarding tolerance for tough customers is a major factor in the realization of this film’s rich comedy.) He goes on to recite, “Karla, my darling. Take your key and open Box 237…” She avers, “Psychologically, I’m very confused. But personally I don’t feel bad at all.” Having heard from Vadas that Kralik was bowlegged (and having slammed him for that that night at the restaurant), she asks him to lift up his pant legs. Seeing that he’s not bowlegged, the now inflectedly and wittily material girl embraces him.
Pirovitch, for all his output of interpersonal generosity, brings to the table a cramped, defensive, isolationist priority. Kralik, looking forward to marriage with someone he still believed to be perfect, had mentioned wanting a place with room for entertaining, and Pirovitch countered with, “Why? Are you an ambassador?” (That would be a gambit unwittingly anticipating a lifetime of difficult diplomacy.) The young couple treat us to a rare (implausible on the face of it, but not impossible [the stage play origin being entirely, and not compellingly, plausible] form of communion. They bring upon themselves a range of dashed hopes and painful isolation, and so reveal to us a range of quiet but heartfelt comedy in pressing oneself beyond fearful, prefabricated outcomes and their shallow ironies.
She had blurted out, revealingly, in the course of trying to butter him up (by admitting that her judgment could be off) for the sake of his allowing her to get out of window dressing (putting on one’s best face to succeed in mundane terms), “We hate to admit we’re wrong. That’s why we’re women.” He had insisted to Pirovitch, anxious about the high expectations that had been fired up by their mail correspondence, “Just a lovely average girl… That’s all I want…” Both of them belie those mediocre instincts, and, in presenting an endless struggle to get to the point, The Shop around the Corner treats us to the farthest reaches of the strange and delightful sparkle of the Lubitsch Touch.
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