Directed by Ernst Lubitsch; Written by Samson Raphaelson
We spend a significant chunk of our lives at work, and the people who work alongside us occupy a weird social space as a result. While they’re a considerable presence for years on end, any emotional intimacy is best avoided, which means our social sustenance is empty calories from nine to five. The Shop Around the Corner proposes that romance is really just a matter of seeing past the employee to the person instead, as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan light it up as uneasy coworkers who unwittingly develop a deep love as pen pals.
In a small shop in Budapest, a handful of employees peddle goods of any kind, from musical cigarette boxes to luggage, and overlooking it all is senior clerk Alfred Kralik (Stewart), who juggles a fickle boss (Frank Morgan) and a sycophantic underlings with expert ease. When Klara Novak (Sullavan) lands a job at the store, tension arises between the two to the point of cutting sarcasm being the default interpersonal exchange.
Raphaelson’s script, based on Miklós László’s play, features rapid-fire exchanges between every and all characters, but the real heat’s between Kralik and Novak. They’re not only pointed and funny exchanges, but it’s also a marvel in how much two characters can talk at each other and not develop a deeper understanding for one another. One would like to think they’re blind to it, lost in affection for the one person who solely lives in the letters they send back and forth with such vigour and devotion.
There’s also the aromatic splendour of young Jimmy Stewart to consider. He’s not masculine and classically handsome enough for his self-deprecating remarks to sound insincere, but his indelible charm, earnestness and wit lifts him into the realm of dream-caliber suitors. Impossible to visualize naked, but easy to imagine spending the rest of your life with. Self-possessed, but reaching out, Kralik is a romantic hero any man can aspire to be.
The Shop Around the Corner is heartwarming not solely because of its central romance, but also due to the familial vibes of the shop’s employees, where relationships aren’t saccharine by any means, but also good-natured beyond collegiality. Kralik is clearly shop owner Mr. Matuschek’s favored son, clamoring for his presence in his home, which Kralik tries to skirt as much as possible, and the dynamic persists down through the store’s sibling-like hierarchy, from the wizened older clerk to the young and keen delivery boy.
For better or worse, our colleagues do become a makeshift family, and The Shop Around the Corner this film is a christmas film spent at the feet of that unique constellation.