Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

This feature first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Sight and Sound

The Shop Around the Corner is re-released in UK cinemas today

Ernst Lubitsch grew up in Berlin as the son of the Russian Jewish émigré owner of a dressmaking company. He knew the world of shops and they feature often in his films. Perhaps witnessing the patter of his father’s employees – the centrality of role play to the life of a salesman – encouraged the young Lubitsch to play roles, and drew him towards acting as a profession. Before he became a director, he was a successful self-mocking character actor, first on the German stage for Max Reinhardt and later in films. That he should end up in Hollywood seems a natural progression for a Jewish sophisticate trying to escape his trade roots.

Jewish traders of European extraction, such as Adolph Zukor (furs), Carl Laemmle (retail clothing) and Louis B. Mayer (scrap metal), founded the Hollywood studio business. There was always an affinity between ‘putting on a show’ to sell shop items and ‘putting on a show’ in movies. In his seminal 1988 book An Empire of Their Own, Neal Gabler says that the Jewish traders made “a sustained attempt to live a fiction and to cast its spell over the minds of others”. Lubitsch moved to Hollywood at the invitation of Mary Pickford after the international success of his historical dramas Madame DuBarry (1919) and Anna Boleyn (1920). She hired him to direct her in Rosita (1923), and though they didn’t get on that well, Lubitsch remained in Hollywood and flourished as one of its most accomplished artists.

In the context of The Shop Around the Corner, it is easy to imagine the young Lubitsch as Pepi, the teenage errand boy of Matuschek and Co. played so brilliantly by William Tracy as the sharpest Budapest street kid turned legit. Pepi constantly complains that the pampered wife of proprietor Mr Matuschek runs his legs off after hours, so his favourite occupation is to imitate her in a high voice: “Pepi, go to the dressmaker. Oh Pepi, will you please pick up a package at the drugstore?”

Of course, Lubitsch’s father did not work in a leather-goods store, and in any case the film was based not on any Lubitsch autobiographical matter but on Nikolaus Laszlo’s 1936 play Parfumerie, but we know that one essential ingredient of what came to be known as ‘the Lubitsch touch’ is that the director would act out every role for every actor he was directing. This is what accounts for the extraordinary consistency of tone in his films, including those that he produced but were directed by the likes of Frank Borzage and Otto Preminger. A talent for mimicry, pretence and persuasion was the foundation of his approach.

When attempting to describe ‘the Lubitsch touch’, however, some of the most vivid examples are visual rather than performative. The opening sequence of Trouble in Paradise (1932), for instance, starts with a shot of a dustbin. A man enters the scene and picks up the dustbin, but it’s only as he walks to a canal to dump the garbage into a gondola – breaking into ‘O sole mio’ having done so – that we see Venice glittering at night, the gorgeous setting for this most exquisitely cynical true-love tryst between two jewel thieves who can’t resist fleecing each other during seduction.

There’s a more complex definition of ‘the Lubitsch touch’ that I’ll touch on later, but by the time he made The Shop Around the Corner in 1940 Lubitsch’s brand of expectation rug-pulling had become ingrained in what was expected of a Hollywood movie. Indeed, it is often argued that it was Lubitsch, not D.W. Griffith, who was the true author of the dominant style (rather than the dominant technological approach) of Hollywood cinema in its golden years. “He invented the modern Hollywood,” Jean Renoir once said. “The man was so strong that when he was asked by Hollywood to work there, he not only didn’t lose his Berlin style… he converted the Hollywood industry to his own way of expression.”

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner almost entirely concerns the eight people who work at Matuschek and Co., although one superlative aspect of the film is how much of what happens off screen is a pertinent part of the narrative – not least Mrs Matuschek, whom we never see nor hear. Mr Matuschek (Frank Morgan) is an ageing proprietor whose lifelong business instincts are no longer a match for those of his chief salesman Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), whom Matuschek is grooming to take over as manager. The film begins the morning after Kralik has been a guest at the Matuschek home and both are feeling bilious from “too much goose liver”. They have a disagreement about some cigarette boxes Matuschek wants to buy that play the repetitive Russian folk melody ‘Ochi Tchornya’ when you open them. Kralik, rightly, thinks they won’t sell; Matuschek is annoyed with him.

The rest of the shop’s staff includes: Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), an unassuming family man, and the film’s moral centre in whom everyone confides; in contrast is Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), a dandy of a certain age feared by everyone as “a rat and stool pigeon”; there are two ladies, the demure Flora (Sara Haden) and the shopaholic Ilona (Inez Courtney), who stay mostly in the background; and the newest member, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), who comes in from the street to be met by Kralik as a customer when she’s really a shopgirl after a job.

The Kralik-Novak relationship goes further down the wrong track when, to get the job, Klara sides with Mr Matuschek on the issue of the cigarette boxes and manages to sell one as a “candy conscious” box, whose tune will remind you every time you succumb to a piece of candy that maybe you should cut down on your consumption. What neither Novak nor Kralik knows as they bicker and demean each other all day is that each is the other’s romantic pen-pal. This is the kind of spectacular social irony that ‘the Lubitsch touch’ feeds on, but it is absolutely bound in to the social position in which its protagonists find themselves. The story originates in the Great Depression, about people for whom the magic words are ‘paycheque’, ‘bonus’ and ‘raise’. Though Mr Matuschek will turn out to be a benevolent figure (indeed, his staff count keeps on increasing while the shop remains mostly empty – at least until the Christmas climax) his whims are potentially lethal, as Kralik discovers when he is summarily ‘let go’ after a disagreement, albeit with a shining reference.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Though Lubitsch’s films are always graceful and light and designed for maximum easy viewing pleasure, there’s a solid underpinning of real circumstance to The Shop Around the Corner. One of the most fascinating aspects of Hollywood film in its heyday is the economical use of space. There are only three scenes in the film that occur away from the shop: the café where the pen-pals are supposed to meet – although Klara doesn’t find out for some time that the Kralik she meets and thoroughly patronises was her blind date; Klara’s bedroom, where she takes sick after her beau doesn’t seem to show; and the hospital room where Matuschek ends up for reasons you’ll have to watch the film to discover.

Everything else happens either just outside the shop or in the shop’s four spaces: the main hall, Mr Matuschek’s office, the staff room and the stockroom, to which Pirovitch disappears whenever he hears Matuschek announce, “All I want is your honest opinion.” All this would reinforce the idea that the shop is the world and a sort of prison – you have to make it there or fail – if it were not for the evocatively deft way that the world outside is conjured from within.

This is a yet more sophisticated version of Lubitsch’s famous propensity for making the audience imagine what’s going on behind a closed door. From just a few grace-notes we can picture Pirovitch’s modest home life, what it must be like to have dinner at Mr Matuschek’s house with his flirtatious wife (too much goose liver and all), and where, after all, the vile Vadas’s tokens of “good luck” come from.

More refined still is the moment when, towards the end, Klara describes her early feelings about Kralik to him – we become aware that Lubitsch and Sullavan have given us not the slightest indication of these feelings, so we’re even invited to reimagine what we’ve already seen. Perhaps the simplest example of making the invisible imaginable, though, is when Pepi says to Mr Matuschek near the end: “You see that girl over there on the corner? Well, I’m her Santa Claus.” Lubitsch knows he doesn’t need to show us the girl.

When others try to reproduce ‘the Lubitsch touch’, it often comes a cropper. There have been two remakes of The Shop Around the Corner and neither works. Among the many reasons why, the most obvious they share is that they lack the fear of unemployment that underpins the humour in the story – and that might make it pertinent again for contemporary audiences. In the Good Old Summertime (1949) is an entertaining musical remake starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson, but no threat to a livelihood can matter much in a musical. The yuppie protagonists of the regrettable You’ve Got Mail (1998), played by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, are also unlikely ever to find themselves on skid row, whatever the film’s outcome.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

A better contemporary place to find traces of Lubitsch is in the television comedy series 30 Rock. If the writers of that show don’t have Billy Wilder’s famous sign “How would Lubitsch have done it?” hanging up, it must be because it’s printed on the lids of their lattes. To give you one brief example, the show’s low-self-esteem heroine, comedy-show producer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), is asked on a date to a high-glamour party by “the hair” – the kind of handsome guy she considers way beyond her league – and can’t cope. She walks out of the party and he runs after her into a shop, where she explains to him that they’re chalk and cheese while she waits to pay for an item. When the shop owner refuses to change her $100 bill, they both turn and berate him in exactly the same words – “You can’t do that. It’s illegal! ” – and find what they have in common: a petty sense of entitlement.

This scene scores in at least one of the three components of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s breakdown of ‘the Lubitsch touch’. Lubitsch, like the 30 Rock writers, has 1) “a way of regarding his characters that could be described as a critical affection for flawed individuals who operate according to double standards”. As for 2), while we may no longer live in an age when the “European capacity to represent the cosmopolitan sophistication of continental Europeans to Americans – and with a double edge” matters so much, we still find the same dynamic in the way that 30 Rock’s Jack (Alec Baldwin) regularly forces an unwanted double-edged sophistication of high glamour and pretentiousness on Lemon. In the case of 3), however, “a graceful way of handling music as an integral part of the film’s construction,” 30 Rock utterly fails. Which shows that even a team of hotshot American television writers can’t really compete.

Returning to those neglected figures, the lovers of The Shop Around the Corner, we’re back with people who, in the terms of the old deference, know their place – something that politicians and financiers in the West seem to want us all to relearn. The dreams of sophistication of the shop assistants revolve around a love of language and literature, of reading Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment.

James Stewart’s doleful lapdog seriousness meets Margaret Sullavan’s preening pretension most beautifully in the following exchange in which Kralik now knows that Klara is his correspondent, but she remains ignorant – as is clear when she disparages him in comparison to her pen-pal: “I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find: instead of a heart, a handbag; instead of a soul, a suitcase; and instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… that doesn’t work.” His response is, “Well, that’s very nicely put.” You get the feeling that if Ernst Lubitsch stabbed you, you’d feel grateful somehow and the wound would heal in a minute.

50 great Christmas films currently streaming

Spice up your seasonal viewing with our guide to the best festive films streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, BFI Player and elsewhere this December.

By Katherine McLaughlin

50 great Christmas films currently streaming