The employees gather outside the shop in the morning, waiting for the boss to arrive and let them in, and already a curious sort of time travel begins, memories of what will be this film’s future, its remakes and derivatives, among them Are You Being Served? and You’ve Got Mail. You try to shake these associations off and concentrate on the film itself. This should be easy, because you haven’t seen it in a long time. It is easy, because the film is fast and funny and graceful, but you don’t leave the world of displacements and associations behind. The film, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop around the Corner, now completing a run at the BFI, is all about associations and displacements.
Where are we, for example? A title card says we’re in Budapest, and the film is based on a play, Parfumerie, by Miklós László. But it was written by Samson Raphaelson, with the uncredited help of Ben Hecht, and everything about the film, its detailed, old-fashioned sets, its implausible streets, the odd mixture of accents among its characters and the fact that everyone speaks in epigrams, suggests fast-talking Hollywood. Raphaelson also wrote Suspicion and The Merry Widow, so there are several other Hollywoods in the offing here. That man, the boss, who shows up in a taxi and a fur-edged coat, who is obviously the terrifying dictator with the heart if not of gold then of malleable tin – haven’t we seen him before, and why are we so convinced of his secret benevolence? We have. And we know him as Frank Morgan, alias the Wizard of Oz. And James Stewart, looking much younger than the wry, unageing James Stewart of legend and memory (he was 32 when he made this movie) – why doesn’t he seem more out of place? James Stewart, the man from Laramie, the man from Vertigo, how can he seem so comfortable as a youthful senior salesman in a shop in Budapest?
In part because no one is trying to pretend this is Budapest. This is movieland, a place where different acting styles cohabit like peaceful immigrants, and where history has no real purchase, to use all too ready an idiom. The shop around the corner is not even around the corner, it’s on the main street. And in part all this happens because of the notorious, unfortunately named ‘Lubitsch touch’, which sounds like an itch but was meant, by the press agent who coined it, to suggest easy elegance and old European worldliness. Lubitsch, born in Berlin in 1892, had made some 40 films in Germany before coming to America, where his best-known works were The Love Parade, Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow, and the marvellous Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be. The Shop around the Corner was released in 1940, and Heaven Can Wait in 1943. Lubitsch died in 1947.
One might look at Lubitsch’s gift in another way, especially in his later films. It’s true that history has no purchase in his world, but not because history is absent. Think of the man in To Be or Not to Be who is childishly proud to be called Concentration Camp Ehrhart. ‘Yes, yes,’ he says laughing, ‘we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.’ Or remember the Soviet reference book in Ninotchka called Who Was Who. For a moment history becomes laughable and dismissible in just the way we know it’s not. We are out of its shadow, but the shadow waits outside the cinema, and indeed signals its waiting within the film. There is nothing quite as directly world-historical as this in The Shop around the Corner, but we may wonder how many directors could make a failed suicide part of a romantic comedy and still be famous for a light touch.
For all its lightness and charm, the film really is about the entrapments and aspirations of what Siegfried Kracauer called the employees, die Angestellten, best known in translation as ‘the salaried masses’. Almost everyone in the shop grovels before the owner, Frank Morgan; everyone is after a raise or a promotion; the Christmas bonus is to be accepted with abject gratitude. When Margaret Sullavan appears looking for a job (she is in many ways the real star of the film, thanks to Stewart’s discreet underplaying of his own role, leaving all the hope and desperation to her), she is nervous, intelligent and relentless in her need. The storyline seems to say she gets the job because Morgan is taken with her inventive sales patter as she pretends to be already employed: he can certainly find a use for such a person. But the effect is more or less the reverse. You’d have to be going out of business not to hire someone whose manifest need seems to have become her entire personality.
Working in the same shop, needling each other every day (because they like each other, of course, but don’t like their liking), both Stewart and Sullavan are engaged in a romantic correspondence with a person they imagine they have never seen: that is, with each other. In these letters, or rather their reading of them, they not only idealise the unseen partner, they construct him and her as the perfect, absolute opposite of anyone they could actually know: not just a dream but a formal rejection of the real.
The plot turns almost ugly when Stewart learns her identity but doesn’t give his away. He shows up for the rendezvous the timid correspondents have finally managed to arrange – it’s in a café; he wears a carnation, she carries a copy of Anna Karenina – and asks a friend to peer through the window for him and tell him what he sees. The friend, Felix Bressart, who looks like a longer, leaner version of Groucho Marx, reports. He can see the novel, a young woman, can’t quite see her face. Then she moves and he sees it’s Sullavan. He tells Stewart the woman is good-looking, and resembles Sullavan – that is, Miss Novak from the shop. Stewarts gets impatient and wonders why Bressart is talking about Miss Novak. This piece of immortal dialogue ensues. ‘If you don’t like Miss Novak, I can tell you right now you won’t like that girl.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because that girl is Miss Novak.’
If it seems unfair that Stewart should now be allowed to go into the café and bait Sullavan, she certainly repays him by getting so cross that he should be standing in the way of the man she’s waiting for. He would never understand the loftiness of the letters she’s been receiving, she says, because he’s just a ‘little insignificant clerk’. (It’s true this comes after he’s called her an old maid.) How are they going to reconcile the differences between them, and between the fantasy and what’s available?
We shouldn’t miss the meanness of some of the games here. Lubitsch is a kindly director but not a cosy or genial one, and his kindness includes a tolerance for the domestic versions of Concentration Camp Ehrhart. This would be the moment to remember the attempted suicide. Morgan, the boss, suspects Stewart of sleeping with his wife, and fires him without telling him the reason. Then the private detective Morgan has hired shows up with a full report. The rumour that Morgan’s wife was having an affair with one of his employees was true, but the man wasn’t Stewart. It was Ferencz Vadas, the flashy disagreeable man about town. Morgan thought it was Stewart, he later says, because Stewart had been to dinner at his house, and his wife had seemed taken with him and his thank-you note. But the real reason, we quickly gather, is that Morgan likes Stewart and can’t imagine his wife might want to have an affair with anyone else in his shop. So when Morgan thinks the culprit is Stewart, he fires him; when he learns the culprit is Vadas, he tries to commit suicide. The Lubitsch touch: your vanity can be caught up not only in your wife’s betrayal but in her taste.