The Shop Around the Corner

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By James Bowman

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This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called “Isn’t It Romantic? Romance at the Movies, 1934-1989″ at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (Go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend.) The second film in the series was The Shop Around the Corner (1940) by Ernst Lubitsch, shown on June 24th. Before the screening, I spoke as follows:

Last week I spoke of the long history of Western romance that culminated in what I called the “domestic romance” – or what a more politically oriented critic than I am might call the bourgeois romance – of the golden age of Hollywood and the popular culture in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. It Happened One Night was such a romance, but there was also a strong class element to it, a looking beyond the middle class audience it was intended for and towards a quasi-aristocratic world which would once have been seen as the natural home for romance. The domestic romance is inevitably about property – the setting up of a new home – and so the happiness which it portends is naturally enhanced by the presence, even though it may be (as in It Happened One Night) only in the offing, of a large sum of money. Where would Cinderella be, after all, without the prince?

But tonight’s movie, The Shop Around the Corner of 1940, an adaptation of a play by the Hungarian playwright, Miklós László by the German-Jewish director, Ernst Lubitsch, is in this sense at least, a much more austere example of domestic romance. Alfred Kralik, played by James Stewart, is not a prince and Klara Novak, played by Margaret Sullavan, is not, even potentially, a princess. Both are humble assistants in the luggage and gift shop in Budapest owned by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Neither seems remotely capable of the kind of extravagant, princely gesture that was our first introduction to Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, where he told off the boss while drunk as a sort of glorious declaration of independence. And yet Kralik shows that he is prepared to resign on a point of principle, as well as to tell the boss things that he doesn’t want to hear.

In spite of their emphatically lower-middle-class origins, both Mr Kralik and Miss Novak – I love how they are so formal with each other – do have one window into the world of their social betters from whence the idea of romance has descended to them. This is in their love of literature, which is the subject of their anonymous correspondence. Indeed, it appears that they themselves become poets, inspired by each other, and fall in love with a world of generous spiritedness and sensitivity that both of them harbor within them but that both must keep carefully out of sight while attending to their duties at Mr Matuschek’s shop. They profess not to be interested in “the vulgar details of how we earn our daily bread” or even in any close inquiry into what they pretend to regard as the superficial question of each other’s physical attractiveness. “What does it matter as long as our minds meet?” says Klara in the letter Kralik reads reverently to his confidant, Mr Pirovich (Felix Bressart).

At this distance of time we are able to note the irony by which nothing that they do so clearly marks them out as members of the lower middle class as this lust for “culture” and self-improvement, this earnest belief in the purity and disinterestedness of motive in any love worthy of the name, and this belief in the vulgarity of mere material considerations.The token, along with the red carnation, by which they are to recognize each other is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, an example of what would have been thought to be “advanced” literature a generation or two before their time – the self-improving bourgeoisie come to these things a bit late – because it dealt with adultery. To them the novel must have been a fatal and tragic but beautiful love story resulting from the principals’ disregard of merely prudential considerations. It was also, in case anyone was interested, a token of their high-mindedness and their claim to belong to an aristocracy of taste which is part of their entitlement to engage in the old aristocratic pastime of romance.

It is important to recognize that Lubitsch, throughout the film, makes relentless fun of all these pretentious delusions without for a moment allowing us to lose our affection for the two deluded lovers. In realizing that they love each other, they also have to realize that they are as susceptible as anyone else to the superficial and material side of love. And when Kralik realizes this a little sooner than Miss Novak, he gives her a lesson in reality with his fable about his alter ego, Mathias Popkin, the short, bald, unemployed man who proposes to live on her salary, which so alarms her just before she learns the truth. But it takes them the whole movie to get to this point. When the chastened Alfred Kralik first realizes that he has been wrong about Miss Novak, he says gently to her, “You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.”

Her reply is scathing. “Well 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.” Her scorn for her lover’s workaday self as head salesman for Matuschek and Company is really scorn for herself and for the reality of her own life. It is something she has to be purged of in order to be able to understand what love really means.

In general, The Shop Around the Corner explores the gap between the ideal and the real in love – not only in terms of the images that James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan have of each other from their correspondence as opposed to those that they have in the shop but also in terms of Mr Matuschek’s obviously failing marriage. The reality of adultery turns out to be nothing like the romance of Anna Karenina. There’s another way, too, in which the ideal and the real come into conflict. It’s pretty obvious that Klara Novak has been the victim of what we would call sexual harassment at one or more of her previous places of employment, and she has had recourse to the only remedy for it that was available to many another young woman of the time – if she were brave and determined enough – which was to leave and find another job. If she could. For, as in the other two pre-war films we’re showing this summer, the looming presence of the Depression is always there in the background, though seldom brought out into the open. This is why Miss Novak is so desperate to get a job at Matuschek and Company when she first comes into the shop.

Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that she should attempt to escape from the sordid reality of being groped by her employer in an idealized love-affair carried on by anonymous correspondence. And yet there is an ambiguity about this as well. On the one hand, even when she is at her most hostile to Mr Kralik, she feels for him a grudging respect and pays him the compliment of saying that he is her idea of a gentleman since, as she puts it, “When you say, Miss Novak, I want you to come into the stock room and put some bags away, you really mean you want to put some bags away.” Later, however, just at the point where she thinks she is about to find happiness with somebody else and therefore is safe from the attraction that she feels, she confesses to him that “there were some days in the stockroom when you could have swept me off my feet.” The so-called “psychological confusion” that both of them confess to at this point is one way of describing the vertiginous con
sciousness that welcome and unwelcome sexual advances are sometimes a little hard to tell apart – though today it would be all but impossible even to suggest such a thing.

This brings up a final point that follows on from something that was said in our discussion last week of It Happened One Night. Amy Kass and one or two others who were here then made the point that the marriage between Clark Gable’s Peter Warne and Claudette Colbert’s Ellie Andrews would have been doomed from the start, so little did they seem to have in common. By explaining why I think that is the wrong way to look at that film, I hope I can also explain something about tonight’s, although I expect Amy and others will want to challenge this view of the matter in the discussion that will follow our screening.

Every romance is a highly wrought time sculpture, and plot is as essential to it as it is to a spy thriller. This is the story of how two people met and fell in love, and every detail of that story is of significance because if the story had not happened just as it did, and the events had not taken place in precisely the order that they did, an event of life-changing importance for the principal characters would not have happened. Another way to put this is to say that the classic romance is as much about fate or destiny as it is about the characters, and that fate or destiny is, by definition, something not in their control. Looked at in this way, then, to judge not just It Happened One Night but any romance in the way that we would judge a real-life relationship if we were called in for pre-marital counseling is to miss the point. It’s just because your couple are in one way or another improbable – either through being temperamentally unlike or some other incompatibility – that that sense of fate or destiny is conveyed to us by the story teller.

In a way, therefore, the more unsuited or otherwise unlikely a couple show themselves to be, the more random and therefore fated seems their meeting. To say, in effect, that the events of the drama almost didn’t happen is one way to convey this sense of fatedness. Shakespeare’s romantic comedies as well as the tragedies of Romeo and Juliet and Othello are like this. Another is to say, in effect, that no one could have expected it to happen, given how unlike and antagonistic the couple are on first meeting. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which came up in last week’s discussion, achieves its effect in this way, as does both It Happened One Night and The Shop Around the Corner. One of the things that makes the romance, either comic or tragic, what it is is this sense that, somehow and for good or for ill, the lovers were meant by something bigger and more powerful than themselves to be together.

In the earliest versions of the legend of Tristan and Isolde, the lovers were said to have been so much in the grip of forces larger than themselves that they couldn’t resist them even though they did not really like each other. This same theme survives in the idea of the love potion which was a part of the legend from its earliest redactions. In the lovers’ attempt to resist their fate, they were just like Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice or Peter Warne and Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night or Mr Kralik and Miss Novak in The Shop Around the Corner: powerless and overmastered. I think that the need in so many romances for this resistance of the principals against being made into a romance lies in the generic quality of human sexual congress. Everybody knows that, physiologically speaking, this is a pretty simple matter. Rod A goes into Slot B. Any two representatives of the two sexes in a fertile state can accomplish the biological purpose of the thing without all that narrative superstructure and sense of fatality getting involved. We are always aware of this ordinariness on the material level even as we delight in the multiple particularities of romance. This, this, and this made it happen. And that makes it all seem like fate.

In other words, what we delight in when we delight in “love triumphant” (once again to cite the newspaper headline from It Happened One Night) is our own individuality and having a story to tell like no other. All of life is a battle against generality, the generic and the genetic, and for particularity and individuality: that is, for the chance to have a story of our own that makes us different from everyone else. That fate should have taken an interest in matching our surrogates up with each other in spite of all that mere circumstance, or mere compatibility considerations, could do to keep them apart is a reassurance that what would otherwise be sordid or practical or generic actually has a transcendent and perhaps even divine element in it.

The absurdity of so many of Shakespeare’s happy endings creates the same effect. Don’t try this at home, folks! Having, like Viola in Twelfth Night, your identical twin brother turn up at the last moment to take an unwanted same-sex lover off your hands and open the way for you to match up with the guy you really care about – who only thinks that you yourself are a potential same-sex lover – that’s not the sort of thing that most of us can count on in real life. There we would be better advised to concern ourselves with how much we have in common. And yet so many of the stories we delight in about love stress not commonality but difference. Like Twelfth Night or Pride and Prejudice or The Shop Around the Corner they have this sort of wild improbability built into them to remind us that there is always something reckless, irresponsible, unofficial about love.

My friend and former colleague, Ferdinand Mount, once wrote a fascinating book called The Subversive Family, which made what I think is the unanswerable point that the cornerstone of cultural resistance to all political and utopian scheming through the ages has been the family. But in many ways what is most subversive about the family is its formation on a wave of overmastering passion and in defiance of all rational and prudential considerations – just as Mr Kralik and Miss Novak must shyly imagine it in the full flush of their initial naïveté. This paradox in which are united innocence and experience, passion and practicality, love and hate, individuality and destiny, the generic and the gloriously particular is something that we can find in all the greatest romances – of which, I hope you’ll agree, The Shop Around the Corner is one.

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