The great Billy Wilder had a sign over his office door in tribute to his hero which read, “How would Lubitsch do it?” It is beyond doubt that masterpieces such as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot would not exist without the work of Ernst Lubitsch, a German American filmmaker who, like Wilder, left his homeland and became synonymous with the golden age of Hollywood.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) eschews politics despite the geopolitical context and concerns two bickering employees at a gift shop in Berlin who fail to realise they are falling in love as anonymous pen pals.
Wilder was sometimes accused of cynicism in his work, but his mentor’s love for his characters is obvious from the outset. Each of the shop’s employees has a satisfying arc, from the kindly family man to the precocious delivery boy. Front and centre, though, are Alfred Kralik (James Stewart, in a Christmas movie he’s not quite so well known for) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). The chemistry is palpable, possibly because the pair knew each other personally, and it is little wonder that the director delayed shooting the film until both actors were available. Lubitsch certainly felt it worth the wait and later called this “the best picture I ever made in my life”.
“Write what you know”, as the adage goes, and Lubitsch drew upon his formative years working in his father’s Berlin shop. The central idea comes from the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, a concept so perfect it has formed the basis for three films, most recently Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (in which the Meg Ryan character’s bookshop is lovingly named The Shop Around The Corner).
After wrapping principal photography, with scenes reportedly shot in sequence, the director told a newspaper: “It’s not a big picture, just a quiet little story that seemed to have some charm. It didn’t cost very much, for such a cast, under $500,000. It was made in 28 days. I hope it has some charm.”
As with The Apartment, this is a Christmas film containing themes of suicide and adultery, yet the masterful touch of the filmmaker ensures one is never overwhelmed. This is a true romantic comedy, with the emphasis is as much on the romance as the laughs. The characters are beautifully drawn and expertly played and, like The Apartment by Lubitsch’s protégé, it is just about perfect.