Merry Christmas! Now shut up and watch this. You’re welcome.
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The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, will forever have the unfortunate distinction of being known as “the movie that You Got Mail was based on.” Ok, maybe I shouldn’t use the word “unfortunate,” sorry Eric. I mean, sure, Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, America Online. Those are 3 things I fear that some of my 22 year old co-workers wouldn’t know if I said the words out loud. It’s like when I brought up Tony Danza and they just looked at me with a blank stare. Tony Danza?!? Nothing. How can you live in a world where you don’t know who Tony Danza is?
Anyway, The Shop Around the Corner is my favorite holiday movie. Yes, it is even better than Die Hard, I promise you. The story centers around a gift shop in Budapest. Jimmy Stewart is Kralik, the head clerk of a little group of characters. His grumpy boss, played by Frank Morgan (who played The Wizard), hires Clara, played by Margaret Sullivan. Clara and Kralik don’t hit it off and verbally spar. We then find out, independently, that they both have secret pen pals, and-surprise! Their pen pals are each other.
As we get closer to Christmas, the two pen pals want to meet each other. Kralik discovers his pen pal is Clara and chickens out. There are some other plots inside the shop going on, involving the owner, his wife and another clerk. Everything of course goes awry, people are mean to each other, Kralik loses his job and feels unworthy of Clara. Fortunately, everything is put back together in a very satisfying way.
The Shop Around the Corner was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the German born director famous for what is called “The Lubitsch Touch.” In my mind, I had attributed several movies to Lubitsch but I just discovered, thanks Wikipedia, that I’ve only ever seen one other Lubitsch movie, Trouble in Paradise, an equally charming movie from the 1930s.
So what, you may ask, is “The Lubitsch Touch?” In this movie I think it is the heart, the little touches that are windows into the depths or our characters. It is the vulnerability we see in the grumpy shop owner when he confirms that his wife is cheating on him. It is the way the characters come together to help the owner at the end. It is the spirit of community and family, whether the ones you are born with or the ones you make. That feeling of Christmas I’ve always found the most meaningful, taking your stock boy to the best dinner he’s ever had because he is away from his family, or Pirovitch, the Jewish clerk, talking about his family in his small little apartment and how he can’t wait to go home to “Mama.” In this movie, to me, this is the Lubitsch touch. You want to work for Matuschek and Company and sell those stupid cigarette cases, or at the very least shop there. It is everything that You’ve Got Mail is missing, as that movie focuses entirely on the two pen pals, and forgets the worlds they live in and the people who occupy those worlds.
This morning, before writing this, I decided to use my friend Google to find out what is the technical definition of “The Lubitsch Touch.” Turns out it was a marketing scheme back in the day developed by the studios to promote Mr. Lubitsch who was new to America. That was a little disappointing. However, I think everyone agrees that Mr. Lubitsch does have a touch, and it’s all over the place in the 2 whole movies of his that I have seen. So watch this movie, dammit. Set your DVRs, TCM is showing it on Christmas Eve.