12 Films of Christmas: The Shop Around the Corner

shoparound_225.jpgThis excerpt from Alonso Duralde's book Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas takes us to a charming Hungarian boutique where almost everyone seems to speak with an American accent:

Co-workers Klara (Margaret Sullavan) and Alfred (James Stewart), both clerks at an upscale Budapest boutique at the turn of the 20th century, despise each other, but they unknowingly exchange breathlessly romantic letters as pen pals. There's no shortage of intrigue at the store, owned by Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), whose wife is cheating on him -- he incorrectly believes Alfred may be cuckolding him, not realizing that his wife's lover is someone else on his payroll. When Alfred loses his job, he's too depressed to keep his date with his pen pal, but after a friend peeks in and tells him that Klara is the girl he was supposed to meet, Alfred has to decide whether or not to declare his love to his rival. Whatever happens between Alfred and Klara, it's going to have to wait until after the Christmas rush.

Even today, filmmakers strive to achieve what's known as the "Lubitsch touch" in romantic comedies -- the great Billy Wilder actually kept a framed banner in his office that read, "How would Lubitsch do it?" -- and the master's skill at juggling fully-formed characters, snappy dialogue, and the perfect dollop of sentimentality is fully on display in this classic. While the film makes little effort to hide its stage-bound origins, the performances are so sparkling, and the chemistry among all the characters (not just the leads, who have it by the stocking-full) is so sharp, that you won't mind spending time inside Matuschek's. (William Tracy steals scene after scene as the store's harried errand boy.) Workplace comedies and contentious romances as delightful as The Shop Around the Corner come around all too rarely.

Fun Facts:

· The film has been remade twice, to varying degrees of success. In the Good Old Summertime (1949) seems clearly designed to put Judy Garland back into a picture hat after the success of Meet Me in St. Louis, and while this version has its charms, Van Johnson is definitely no Jimmy Stewart. And then there's Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail (1998), starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as rival booksellers who become internet chat buddies; nice try, but no cigar.

· Charles Smith has a brief appearance at the end of the film, as Matuschek's new errand boy. Smith would turn up later as a member of a barbershop quartet in In the Good Old Summertime. (The latter movie's most famous cameo appearance would have to be the screen debut of three-month-old Liza Minnelli, who appears in the final moments alongside her mother.)

· Throughout the production of the film, Lubitsch was inspired by memories of his father's shop in Berlin. The director later called this "the best picture I ever made in my life."

Check out the rest of Movieline's 12 Films of Christmas as they're revealed this week and next.