It was sometime in the mid-nineteenth century that department stores sprang into being, and by the end of it they were in the common parlance of most city-dwellers. I’d like to think – and many people who’ve studied the subject properly do imply – that department stores were as much an aesthetic phenomenon as they were a socioeconomic one. Cities meant crowds, and as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1935, when seen through a crowd “the city was now a landscape, now a room. And both of these went into the construction of the department store, which made use of flânerie itself in order to sell goods.” Pleasurable gazing & the masses: a perfect union of aesthetic desire and capitalism. Windows are arranged beautifully (to catch the eyes of passers-by, and when the eye is caught, who knows but something else may be, too?); interiors suggest the sort of luxury that every busy-bee middle-class home aspires towards; and dolled-up mannequins present astounding ideals of beauty (just like the movies!). Windows and arrangement were (and still are, surely!) incredibly important – with department stores, it was not a question of snagging customers by getting them to deliberate the utility or functionality or basic necessity of things. No: the beautiful does the trick, brings them right into the store. A surface-oriented, purely visual sort of culture, and we’re back in Holly Golightly’s shallow – but comforting! – world.
What was that she said? Just get in a cab and go to Tiffany’s: “It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.”
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More than anybody – yes, even more than Holly Golightly! – Ernst Lubitsch really makes the department store seem beautiful, and not just in a visual sense. Oh no: Lubitsch’s department store is more than just visual allure (although it is beautiful); it’s also a space in which the larger dramas of human life play themselves out, almost ineffably, amidst the wallets and cigarettes boxes and men’s travelling-bags that make up the fine and quotidian stuff of life itself.
His 1940 film ‘The Shop Around the Corner‘ is centered around this mercantile-but-beautiful environment, the department store. Under the fearsome direction of one Mr. Hugo Matuschek, and in the confines of that little shop around the corner (‘Matuschek & Co.’), are the dreams, fears, hopes, and aspirations of a few employees lived out. The protagonists of this little tale are Alfred Kralik (played by the wonderful, splendid, beautiful James Stewart!), “first salesman” of the store, and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan – who is also splendid and beautiful), the store’s most recent addition. Alongside them is the sweet Pirovitch, who in modern parlance could be called Kralik’s ever-dependable ‘wingman’; the egotistical, trouble-stirring, womanizing Mr. Vadas; and a few others besides.
The narrative begins with two threads – the personal and the professional (don’t they all, for everyone?). Mr. Kralik is looking to enlarge his mind – to “study something about art, and literature, and history; how people live in Brazil!” – but unfortunately his pittance of a salary doesn’t allow him to buy an encyclopaedia. But every cloud does indeed have a silver lining; he comes across a ‘lonely-hearts’ ad. in the paper, and lo and behold! A meeting of true minds is imminent, for there is “modern girl”, wishing to “correspond on cultural subjects”. Anonymously. With “intelligent, sympathetic young man.” Who could it be but Mr. Kralik? And so a little epistolary love-affair begins; names are not known and faces are not seen, but it is considered by both parties to be a wonderful ‘meeting of true minds’, as it were. The prospect of a face-to-face meeting causes Mr. Kralik some worry; ideals, fine minds, and ‘cultural subjects’ are all very well, but what if she thinks he’s ugly? Or what if he thinks she’s ugly? Or what if she’s so beautiful that he is terrified of her? (What I love about this is that they are all very real fears….for lots of people, I guess, and regardless of era or place!).
Around the time Mr. Kralik’s romantic woes are playing themselves out in loving little letters, Matuschek & Co. acquires a new employee: the smart and sassy Klara Novak, who impresses her way into a job despite Mr. Matuschek’s initial unwillingness. Thanks to her, Mr. Kralik’s professional life is also undergoing some turmoil; she works under him, but she doesn’t respect him – worse, she gives impersonations of him as being bow-legged in the locker room! Resentment and insulting jibes sums up their relationships just about well – but oh! (The romantic-at-heart movie-goer knows it for what it really is, though: chemistry, pure and simple.)
You’ve probably figured it all out by now – Klara Novak is Mr. Kralik’s “dear Friend”, and he hers, and yet they blissfully spend all their non-epistolary time despising one another. It all comes to a head one action-packed night at Matuschek & Co.: Kralik loses his job (another manifestation of Mr. Matuschek’s inexplicable hatred for him all of a sudden – which we then learn is because Mr. Matuschek’s wife is having an affair with one of his employees, and Mr. M. suspects the poetry-spouting Kralik); and the fateful meeting between the two pen-pals is also scheduled for that night.
Mr. Kralik’s had a bad day, but it gets a whole lot worse when a sneak peek through the café window shows him that his ‘dear Friend’ of Letterbox 237 – who is to be identified by her copy of Anna Karenina and a red carnation for a bookmark – is none other than the rude Miss Novak herself! He gamely goes to chat with her without betraying his true identity as her correspondent, but is soon brutalized into further sorrow by her choice insults: “You, an insignificant little clerk!” she cries, jabbing where it hurts most – he’s not even that, anymore. (He provides his fair share of meanness, playing on Klara’s fears that her date might not show up, or worse, show up but secretly leave because of her being visually unsatisfactory – “…you’re cold & snippy like an old maid, and you’ll have a tough time getting a man to fall in love with you!”). Oof. Klara is heartbroken at being (as she believes) stood-up. Mr. Kralik has some assessing to do: does he like Klara? And could Klara, who sees him as mercantile and materialistic, ever like him if she knew the truth? (For who can forget that unforgettable jibe in the café, Klara to Kralik: “I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work.”)
But this is a romantic comedy (though not a screwball comedy, I’d venture), so naturally all is well in the end: Mr. Matuschek discovers that his wife’s lover is actually the wretched Mr. Vadas, who is then speedily sacked by the new manager of the store, Kralik himself. Kralik and Klara improve their quotidian/professional relationship, and – of course – there is a beautiful, chiaroscuro-filled dénouement in which Kralik reveals that he is her dear Friend, and that he is not bow-legged. Cue kiss. Cue The End.
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Pauline Kael, who writes some damned fine and interesting stuff regardless of whether you generally agree with her or not, has this to say about ‘The Shop Around the Corner’:
Close to perfection–one of the most beautifully acted and paced romantic comedies ever made in this country…. in no other movie has this kind of love-hate been made so convincing.
Peter Bogdanovich, whose blog at indiwire I just stumbled across, is even more effusive in his praise; he says (upon re-watching the movie; it’s a brilliant idea/mode of viewing, as a side note, to look at the evolution of your own reaction to a movie)*:
…Exceptional* through the roof, please! This is one of the greatest of American films: an absolute masterpiece of wit, humanity understood and defined. Each character is vividly brought to life with compassion and love; it makes you laugh, and it can make you cry. It is essentially a celebration of “average” people….
Phwoar! High praise indeed! But I agree: it is close to perfection, and not just because of its acting or the pace of the romance. No; what I love most about this movie is how atmospheric it is; I can’t quite pin down where it comes from, either – is it aesthetic? (Yes!) Is it emotional? (Yes!) Is it narrative? (Yes!). Well, whatever its source, this film is steeped in atmosphere; one overwhelmingly of warmth. This film has that rare, ineffable quality of being somewhat shallow, one might say (or superficial), even as it contrives to encapsulate the weightier aspects of life and emotion. (There are a few movies like this – that you love immensely, that you feel are important somehow, and that are still incredibly light. Like a soufflé – soufflé movies, let us call them. When Harry Met Sally springs to mind as being of this ilk; and hey, maybe that’s not entirely a coincidence – if the plot of ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ sounds eerily familiar to you, you might have met it in its modern incarnation: You’ve Got Mail, written and directed, I believe, by Nora Ephron.) Perhaps this quality in the film can be put down to Lubitsch’s incredible ability to collapse content into form, for after all, Kralik and Klara are perpetually struggling to maintain a balance between their ‘weighty’ ideals (culture; knowledge; a fine mind) and more superficial (and importantly, perhaps, visual) concerns (about their looks, and about their status in life – humble shop clerks!). It’s interesting too how painful it is for both Klara and Kralik to be reduced to the superficial – they don’t want to entrap the eye like an alluring window-arrangement (although this matters a little bit, too and humanly so!); they want to be understood. In a society of window-shoppers, human relationships have to struggle painfully against the disinterested-but-assessing gaze, fight fiercely against the mistaken visual paradigm that sees things only as they are, not for what they are.
In the event of the film itself, it is inside a department store, of all the superficial and materialistic places in the world, that people are having their hearts broken, their livelihoods taken away or being scrutinized sympathetically. The arranging of the window display catalyzes the breakdown of a friendship (it leads to Kralik’s firing); breaking Christmas sales records and receiving bonuses establishes a familial warmth and camaraderie within the store that’s wonderfully cheerful. It is inside a department store, after-hours, that we see the heartbroken Mr. Matuschek (hitherto only known as the kindly, somewhat-bumbling, sometimes-stern boss of the place) lament his wife’s infidelity – “Twenty-two years we’ve been married…well…she just didn’t want to grow old with me,” – and attempt suicide. And of course, inside the department store, after the lights go out, we see the culmination of a very sweet and delicate love affair. Amidst the Ochi Tchornya cigarette boxes! (About which, might I add, James Stewart/Kralik was entirely right – the idea of listening to that tinkling music every time you want a cigarette is horrendous!). But perhaps it’s these very things – the big, heavyweight, abstract things we often think about in capitalized form: Love, Betrayal, Friendship, etc. – that infuse their surroundings with the endearing and beloved atmosphere we come to regard them with. Perhaps we come to the realisation, along with Klara, that our lives and loves don’t play themselves out in grandiose settings, really; they play out in more ordinary spaces, and more ordinary contexts. Not at the comedie Française, but in the little shop around the corner.
But the film’s astonishing loveliness comes down, above all, to Ernst Lubitsch. Not because of James Stewart or Margaret Sullavan, although both are wonderful in it and have an incredible on-screen chemistry (still not as good, for me, as Hepburn/Grant!). It’s funny, because a month or so ago when I embarked on my great movie education, I didn’t really like Lubitsch films (I found ‘Ninotchka’ a bit painful, not sure why, and ‘Trouble in Paradise’ was nice but it was an early – 1932 – talkie, and boy it shows). But the time, as Hepburn sort of once said, to make up your mind about movie directors is never. Rightly so.
The majority of the movie is filmed inside the tiny set of the department store: except for the small sections at the café where Klara and Kralik meet and at the hospital where Kralik and Matuschek meet, everything else more or less takes place inside (or just outside) the store. In a poorly directed film this would be claustrophobic, mundane, stifling – utterly horrible. But as the film is – one hardly notices. A wonderful essay I found on the theme of ‘ordinariness’ in ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, by George Toles, points out that
Lubitsch supplies us with frequent, vivid, window and doorway glimpses of authentic darkness lying just beyond the Shop’s comfortable, warmly-lit settings. These brief, startling crossings of the shadow line place the entire action of the film within arm’s length of the kind of suffering for which there is no remedy, and perhaps no available speech.
Perhaps it sounds hyperbolic – but it is true. One could almost say that Lubitsch inverts the conventional direction of the metropolitan gaze: instead of looking into shops through windows, we are looking out of them. And the world outside seems almost scary; often dark, sometimes very palpably cold. The world outside is where Kralik goes when he is fired, and it is from where he watches Klara at the café table as she waits – almost by association, it’s not a nice place to be in. The realm of joblessness and lovelessness. It is also the space from which the sadder, kinder, but now also lonelier Mr. Matuschek, post-recovery and post-marital dissolution, watches his store as it goes through the routine Christmas Eve shopping-frenzy. The realm of wifelessness, friendlessness, purposelessness. And we know, as we watch others looking in, that these are the ‘lonely-hearts’; Lubitsch invests these shots (such brilliance!!!) with an amazing pathos and poignancy. Honestly. Mr. Matuschek in the snow, watching his store from the outside, almost drives me to tears; Kralik assessing Klara from the outside as she waits nervously for dear Friend to show up is breathtakingly romantic, though still tinged with a strange sort of sadness. Sidewalk-gazers are sad waifs; the flâneur doesn’t seem like such an enviable figure after all. The whole film takes place in a sort of dream-world – as somebody put it, “…Lubitsch’s movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom” – in Kael’s ‘Dream City’, perhaps? No Cary Grant here, but you do have a lovely little Hungarian department store (a set resplendent with old-world charm, delightful hints of Europhilia) in which almost everyone speaks with a distinct American accent. A Hungarian store on Balta Street where, for God’s sake, people talk like Jimmy Stewart. If this happened in most films today, I would choke on my popcorn and die out of sheer indignation and rage – but in this film, it hardly seems to matter at all. Everything about it is so ethereal, so other-worldly in its beauty and sadness both; it hardly matters. The more I think I about it, the harder it is to think of a single film today which might have such a quality – situated, sure, but barely tied to its place and context. Films today are so firmly contextualized, right from the little subtitle that says something like “Paris, July 2012” to…well, everything. Verisimilitude and context are the order of the day, today.
I’ve filled this post with enough screencaps to have practically shown you guys the whole movie, but you must forgive me for three more. (That it is so screencap-heavy attests to how incredible Lubitsch’s direction and cinematography are: when I hear the words “visual pleasure”, I don’t think of Laura Mulvey anymore, but this film.) Two of them come from possibly the most breathtakingly beautiful scene – purely in terms of visuals and emotions – in all of cinema. Klara has not only been stood-up by her mysterious lover, but he has stopped writing to her: letterbox 237 lies cold & empty. All her hopes and all her heartbreak are captured, incredibly, in the frame-space of one tiny mailbox. (Sullavan’s ability to put so much pathetic emotion into half her face, might I add, is equally incredible.) The other one is a little snippet of Lubitsch-brilliance; instead of showing us the lovers’ faces when the truth is outed at last, he goes back to that little café jibe about bowlegged Kralik. ‘Would you mind showing me your legs now?’ asks Klara; Kralik obliges (and the infamously awful – read ‘The Philadelphia Story’ anecdotes – Jimmy Stewart legs see the light of screen at last!). (Worth adding: even Sullavan/Stewart legs have great chemistry in the same frame. Why didn’t those two get married?!?!?). Flowery adoration and love-making is all very well if you’re in the comedie Française, but Kralik and Klara, after all, are in humbler and more prosaic settings – and there is just the smallest possibility that the handsome lover will, after all, be bowlegged. Klara just wants to be sure.
Samson Raphaelson, the screenplay adapter behind ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ and one of Lubitsch’s most prolific and loved collaborators, recounts this exchange with Lubitsch in a May 1981 piece in the New Yorker. It is sweet and fearful – and rather sad. (Lubitsch says…)
“A movie – any movie, good or bad – ends up in a tin can in a warehouse; in ten years it’s dust….You’re smart [to Samson, who was a playwright] that you stick with the theatre, Sam. What college teaches movies? But drama is literature. Your plays are published. Someday a student gets around to you – you have a fighting chance.”
Thank God, is all I can say, that Lubitch’s dark prophecy – of being forgotten, his movies unwatched and unappraised – did not come to pass. Thank God that a director with a vision as wonderful, as warming, and as beautiful as Lubitsch’s does get his due, his “fighting chance”. And thank god for some things that technology brought out of dusty tin cans, and to lonelyhearts in the ilk of Klara and Kralik everywhere.**
*The reference to Peter Bogdanovich’s blog was added on Wednesday 27th March 2013, as an edit.
** This reference to Raphaelson’s New Yorker piece was added on Wednesday 27th March 2013, as an edit. Felt I had to :-)