Get ready for the “Then” in the Then and Now Blogathon! Who’s up for a little shopping?
In 1937, the play, Illatszertár, or Parfumerie premiered at the Pest Theatre in Budapest. Written by Miklós László, the play followed the story of a cosmetics shop in Budapest, and in particular two of the clerks, Amalia Balash and George Horvath. The two of them do nothing but snipe back and forth all day, and act like each of them can’t wait for the other to be fired. At the same time, though, they’ve fallen in love via an anonymous pen pal correspondence. The play was bought by M-G-M and adapted for the screen by Samson Raphaelson, when it became The Shop Around the Corner. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, the 1940 film is an appealing tale that’s full of first-rate banter.
Instead of a cosmetics store, the film is set in a Budapest dry goods emporium called Matuschek and Company. The employees are a close-knit bunch, and their boss, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan) is a temperamental but mostly good-natured sort. Working in the shop are Ilona and Flora (Inez Courtney and Sara Haden), two nice ladies who enjoy their jobs and occasional luxuries like fur stoles. There’s Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) who likes to play life safe because he has a wife and two kids. There’s Mr. Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) a pretentious brown-nose who dresses like a dandy on a clerk’s salary. Then there’s Pepe (William Tracy), the errand boy who has big plans for himself. Last but not least, the head clerk, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is like a son to Mr. Matuschek, even going to dinner at his house on a somewhat regular basis, and is a shoo-in for management. Kralik also has a little secret: He’s been corresponding with a young lady. They’ve never met, and he doesn’t know what she looks like, but their minds have connected, and Kralik’s in love.
The shop hums along nicely, and one day a young woman, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) comes in looking for a job. She’s picked a fine time for it, as she happens upon Mr. Kralik and Mr. Matuschek having a disagreement over a cigarette box that plays “Ochi Chernie.” Mr. Kralik thinks it’s tacky; Mr. Matuschek tries to poll the other clerks for their opinion, which most of them do nervously. Klara, on the other hand, picks up the box, takes off her hat, walks right up to a customer, and does a sale job that makes everyone take notice. Long story short, she’s in.
Klara might have landed herself a job, but she gets more than she bargained for. For some reason, she and Kralik can’t stand each other, and they bicker all day long. Klara’s not above buttering Kralik up when she needs to, but it doesn’t take much for her to get right back to going at him.
The Christmas holidays are approaching, and Matuschek & Company have to get ready for the rush. Mr. Matuschek has everyone stay after closing to decorate the windows, and undertstandably, they’re not happy about it. Klara and Kralik both have dates, but try as they might, they can’t get out of working late. As if that’s not enough, Mr. Matuschek lays on a guilt trip just to sweeten the deal.
Mr. Matuschek’s griping stems from his own troubles. His wife is a high-maintenance type who does what she wants, always asking for money and staying out late socializing without her husband. She also uses Pepe as her personal errand boy, which Pepe isn’t too psyched about. Lately, Mr. Matuschek suspects she’s been having an affair, and his first possible candidate is Kralik, since he’s been to his house and all. He snips at Kralik pretty mercilessly, until Kralik asks him if they should call it a day. While everyone is decorating the shop window, Mr. Matuschek decides to take Kralik up on it, and fires him. Everyone is devastated, but there’s nothing they can do.
Mr. Matuschek postpones the decorating until the next day, and of course, Klara makes a beeline for the locker room to get her stuff and rush off to her date.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pirovitch calls Kralik and makes plans to meet him, ostensibly to cheer him up. The two of them trudge through the snow to the cafe where Kralik is supposed to meet his mysterious friend, and Kralik enlists Pirovitch to peek in and see what the girl looks like. The plan is that she’ll have a copy of Anna Karenina with a red carnation as a bookmark.
So, Pirovitch looks.
Anna Karenina? Check.
Red carnation? Check.
She dunks her pastry in her coffee. Bonus.
So far, so good. There is, of course, a catch: The mysterious girl has the same coloring as Klara.
Kralik wants to know what’s wrong with that, so Pirovitch tells him simply, “If you don’t like Miss Novak, I can tell you right now that you’re not going to like this girl.”
“Why not?” asks Kralik.
“Because it is Miss Novak.”
Kralik is absolutely gobsmacked, but he finally decides to play it cool and go into the cafe anyway. Only he doesn’t tell Klara who he is, and predictably they have another spat. Compared to the man she’s supposed to meet, Klara says Kralik is a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work and an insignificant little clerk. Ouch. Right before he makes a quick exit, Kralik calls her pronouncement a perfect blend of poetry and meanness.
While all this is happening, a detective comes to see Mr. Matuschek at the shop, and gives him the results of his findings. Turns out, Mr. Matuschek was right–his wife is cheating on him, only with Mr. Vadas, not Kralik. Mr. Matuschek is stunned. After the detective leaves, he goes to his office to committ suicide, but Pepe finds him just in time. Naturally, he calls Mr. Kralik to come to the hospital, and naturally, Kralik and Matuschek straighten everything out. Kralik is even made the manager of the shop. Of course, Mr. Vadas is suitably dealt with as well, with the unsold cigarette boxes providing background music after Kralik gives Vadas a not-so-gentle shove into the merch tables.
Everyone is overjoyed to find Mr. Kralik back on the job again, and they all start talking about Christmas. Pepe is in his element, having just been made a clerk. He calls an employment agency about a new errand boy, and when the hapless fellow arrives, Pepe is a wee bit of a taskmaster. There’s also a nice bit when Mrs. Matuschek calls complaining about Pepe not delivering her perfume, which I won’t spoil, except for this teaser: “At the moment, Mr. Matuschek is up in a balloon with two blondes.” It’s a great moment.
And oh yeah, there’s the thing with Kralik and Klara. The whole gimmick is that now Kralik knows who he’s been writing to, but Klara is still in the dark. Kralik is therefore able to shamelessly manipulate the situation and watch Klara’s reactions with the greatest of ease. The crowning moment is when he tells Klara her pen pal came to see him, bearing a pot belly and the name, Matthias Popkin. Oh, he trolls her but good, which makes the final moment a slam-bang finish.
Unlike Parfumerie, The Shop Around the Corner weaves the pen pal storyline throughout the narrative. In the original play, it’s introduced at the beginning after Horvath gets fired, and almost seems like a throwaway. Raphaelson’s adaptation allowed the relationship between Kralik and Klara to build more slowly, and in the end have a greater impact.
The cast of The Shop Around the Corner were all fantastic. They support each other sans much scene-stealing, although William Tracy comes close. He really can’t compete with Jimmy Stewart, though, but you all know I’m a wee bit biased in that regard. In his role as Alfred Kralik, Stewart brings his trademark folky humor and delivery, with a touch of realism in his relationship with Margaret Sullavan. The two of them were schoolmates in Pennsylvania, and Stewart had been crushing on her for a long time. Sullavan also helped Stewart improve as an actor. As it happened, though, she ended up marrying one of his other schoolmates, Henry Fonda, the first of several husbands. Still, they stayed friends all their lives, and their chemistry onscreen is really something special.
That does it for my “Then,” everyone, and be sure to read the “Now,” post if you haven’t already. Yes, we’re double-dipping today. 🙂 For more “Thens” and “Nows.”, please see Gill and Catherine, respectively. Hope you enjoyed!