10 great department store films

As Peter Strickland’s fiendish retail-horror In Fabric hits cinemas, we consider how the department store is always open for business on the big screen.

David Morrison

In Fabric (2018)

In Fabric (2018)

In a world in which department stores struggle against cut-price online giants and the growing desertion of the high street, it’s hard to imagine an age in which they represented the very height of glamour and sophistication.

Essentially a 19th-century invention, yet reaching their heyday in the first half of the 20th, the department store created a retail revolution, popularising the idea of shopping as entertainment and the store as destination. Behind fabulously decorated windows lay ornate halls where crowds of the growing middle classes strolled, assisted by a legion of persuasive floorwalkers and shopgirls. In one institution alone customers might buy anything from fabrics to foods to a full funeral service.

With such multitudes, intermingling of classes and a focus on glamour, it’s unsurprising film was so attuned to the setting. A perfect ready-made stage for a variety of themes, from aspirational, amorous conquests (think Clara Bow in It, 1927) to places of self-reinvention (Brooklyn, 2015), festive movies (2003’s Elf and Bad Santa) to critiques of capitalism (Nocturama, 2016), or whether simply providing an endless array of comic props and situations (Safety Last!, 1923, or Who’s Minding the Store?, 1963), the department store has something for every occasion. 

In celebration of Peter Strickland’s perversely original – and sometimes just perverse – In Fabric, a 70s influenced, horror-tinged home counties take on this most distinctive of retail locations, it’s first floor haberdashery as we take a look at 10 great films featuring the department store.

The Floorwalker (1916)

Director Charles Chaplin

The Floorwalker (1916)

An early example of the potential for department stores to field a plethora of comic props, The Floorwalker sees Chaplin as the Tramp creating havoc in store – whether testing shaving equipment, hiding from detectives in the luggage section or making entertaining use of a shoe department’s rolling ladder. Things go from bad to worse, and he’s soon wrapped up in a plot by the manager and floorwalker to steal money from the shop safe.

In what was the comedian’s first production for the Mutual Film Corporation, Chaplin provided the original example of a slapstick comic staple: a ‘moving staircase’ scene. Charlie is chased down a fast-moving upwards escalator, but both characters stay in their respective places as the stairs keep pace with any frantic attempts to run. The Floorwalker also featured the first appearance of the wonderfully villainous Eric Campbell, soon to become a Chaplin comedy regular.

Au bonheur des dames (1930)

Director Julien Duvivier

Au bonheur des dames (1930)

Adapted from an Emile Zola novel, Julien Duvivier’s Au Bonheur des Dames is something of a last hurrah for French silent filmmaking, and commercially suffered for its timing. It’s a familiar tale of capitalist progress wreaking ruin, as it details the fortunes of a family-run drapers driven out of business by the glamorous Parisian department store opposite, an establishment in which the niece takes work and encounters a variety of sometimes exploitative romantic interests.

The destructive nature of such colossal retailers on both the lives of staff and on surrounding businesses is revealed with cinematic flair. Duvivier employs a host of stylistic techniques, including superimposition, fluid tracking shots, elevated camerawork and striking production design (with certain interior shots filmed at Galeries Lafayette). Most impressive, however, is its use of montage sequences – the intercutting of demolition work with the uncle’s breakdown and ruin employs a fast-cut mix of sound and image to devastating effect.

Bachelor Mother (1939)

Director Garson Kanin

Bachelor Mother (1939)

Common themes of the department store film, especially comedies, are a seemingly unlikely romance between shopgirl and store owner, as well as mistaken identities and undercover disguises. Bachelor Mother is no exception, and its Oscar-nominated story by Felix Jackson – stemming from the Hungarian film Little Mother (1935) – lends plenty of scope to such antics, with Ginger Rogers especially making the most of a witty script and spirited direction.

Rogers, recently split from her professional partnership with Fred Astaire, stars opposite David Niven as a seasonal employee at New York’s John B. Merlin and Son. She inadvertently keeps her job when said son (Niven) believes Rogers to be the poor mother of a foundling child. After much confusion and merriment, including a sequence in which Niven attempts to return a broken toy duck incognito and is forcefully accosted for shoplifting by the floorwalker, romance naturally wins out over differences of class or social acceptability.

The Big Store (1941)

Director Charles Reisner

The Big Store (1941)

Advertised as the final Marx Brothers film – the Brothers would in fact reunite for two further outings – The Big Store made full use of its department store setting, resulting in a chase sequence employing stunt doubles and stop-motion photography, and taking in an elevator, a bicycle, a mail chute and Harpo skating in oversized roller skates. Other extended sequences included a madcap bed department scenario, in which beds keep popping out of walls, and a musical number, ‘Sing While You Sell’, in which Groucho breaks off to tell us: “This is a bright red dress, but Technicolor is so expensive.”

While the film’s plot isn’t up to much – detective Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho Marx) attempts to thwart a crooked store manager and save the life of singer Tony Martin – it’s worth watching for the Brothers’ hare-brained routines and manic energy; a particular highlight being Chico and Harpo’s impressively timed piano duet.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Director Sam Wood

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Predating reality show Undercover Boss by nearly 70 years, The Devil and Miss Jones disguises the world’s richest man, J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), as a lowly shoe salesman in order to root out union organisers at his New York store, an institution that warns its staff by tannoy against protesting for better conditions. Merrick, swiftly demoted to selling slippers by an insulting, supercilious manager, begins to record names to sack in his ‘Doomsday’ notebook.

But after the tycoon befriends kind colleague Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), her boyfriend and union man Joe (Robert Cummings), and the gentle object of his affections, Elizabeth (Spring Byington), he re-assesses and confronts the business establishment. In a deservingly Oscar-nominated performance, Coburn pulls off the trick of being immensely likeable even before his road to Damascus (well, Coney Island) conversion, and by the time he’s standing up to the managers it’s impossible not to cheer for this blustering old curmudgeon.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Director George Seaton

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Writer Valentine Davies dreamt up the idea for this enduring Christmas classic while standing in a holiday season queue and wondering what Santa would make of such commercialisation. The resulting film, featuring an engaging white-bearded old man (Edmund Gwenn) working in Macy’s while claiming to be the real Kris Kringle – a claim later defended in court – would go on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Original Story for Davies and Best Supporting for Gwenn.

Miracle on 34th Street suggests both the twinkling charm and cold fiscal reality of seasonal commerce. Kris’s honesty with customers, at times sending them to other stores, works wonders for Macy’s PR, and as the film itself jokes the real miracle is that Kris causes arch business rivals Mr Macy and Mr Gimbel (both stunned by Kris’s strategy) to shake hands. While the film depicts retailers’ concern for dollars and cents, it still exhibits admiration for the institution of fantasy and aspiration that Macy’s so epitomises.

The Crowded Day (1954)

Director John Guillermin

The Crowded Day (1954)

A behind-the-scenes day in the life of a postwar London department store, taking in the interweaving love lives and antics of its staff, The Crowded Day was targeted at the women’s market and featured a notable cast of British talent, including John Gregson and Joan Rice, subcontracted from Rank, and supporting players such as Sid James and Vera Day. The film was Adelphi Films’ attempt to create a quality ‘A’ picture, and included location shots at Oxford Street’s Bourne & Hollingsworth store (one day’s shooting was cannily arranged for free).

Tonally the film is an unusual mix of bawdy wit – scenes involving a naked mannequin suggest something of the Carry On or Are You Being Served? school of comedy – alongside romance, melodrama (including a then risqué unmarried mother plotline) and at times even noir-esque atmosphere. Demonstrating a flair for understated technique, director John Guillermin somehow manages to pull it all together.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director George A. Romero

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

“Let’s go shopping!” cries Peter, a survivor of the zombie apocalypse, who, along with three companions, finds sanctuary in a suburban shopping mall where zombies press their faces to the windows, destined to mindlessly wander the goods-laden aisles. Asked what brings them there, ex-reporter Stephen replies: “Some kind of instinct. Memory… This was an important place in their lives.” It doesn’t take a degree in film studies to understand that George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is a gory satire on consumer culture and vacuous greed.

While the survivors use the entire mall, it’s clear the jackpot for their avarice is J.C. Penney’s department store, a holy grail of fine foods, clothing and luxury items, and well worth risking one’s life for. And this being a classic horror, it also conveniently provides an array of creepy mannequins that help to create one of the film’s most effective jump scares. Shop ’til you drop indeed!

Carol (2015)

Director Todd Haynes

Carol (2015)

Frankenberg’s department store plays only a small part in Todd Haynes’ version of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 semi-autobiographical romance, but it lingers in the memory long after the credits roll. Providing the opportunity for aspiring photographer but current toy department sales girl Therese (Rooney Mara) to meet the more mature Carol (Cate Blanchett), the store provides a safe, intimate space for subtle flirtation, for eyes to meet over a limited-edition handmade train set. Mara and Blanchett deliver nervous, beautifully judged performances to convey that while externally it’s simply an everyday sales transaction, internally emotions are running wild.

The meticulous production design, with a palette of mainly pastel greens and pinks, adds an authentic 50s aura and period glamour to proceedings, enhancing the erotic subtext of passionate restraint. Frankenberg’s is shown very much as a place of work, but it’s also where the magic first happens in one of the most affecting films of this decade.

In Fabric (2018)

Director Peter Strickland

In Fabric (2018)

Following the journey of a haunted “artery red” dress as it passes from discount sale through to successive owners, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric is also the tale of Dentley & Soper’s, a truly diabolical – in both senses – department store. Staffed by a coven of sales assistants dressed in Victorian gothic, D&S is a world of back-room erotic mannequin rituals, outlandish florid-tongued staff (a seasonal sale is described as a “prestigious consumerist festivity” designed to “expunge”), cash carrying pneumatic tubes and 1970s-era glossy catalogues.

Strickland is fetishistically detailed in his stylisation, and there’s an obvious love for the department stores of old that inspired the setting (the film was shot in the no longer trading Allders of Croydon). But despite the appreciation of material possessions, the dress goes the same way as many of our objects of desire, starting as a purchase of hopeful transformation but ending in a charity shop and a nasty skin rash.

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.