The Lubitsch touch is on full display in this 1940 masterwork, with its clever script brought to life beautifully by a cast headlined by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.
The Production: 5/5
The Shop Around The Corner represents some of the very best work by all involved, from Ernst Lubitsch’s spritely direction, to lively leading performances from Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, with equally outstanding supporting turns from the rest of the cast, all executing a script credited to Samson Raphaelson from an earlier play by Miklos Laszlo. A 1940 production set in Budapest, the film itself works for all times in all locales. Often imitated but rarely equaled, The Shop Around The Corner is a genuine delight.
Alfred Kralik (Stewart) and Klara Novak (Sullavan) are employees at the titular store owned by Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), employees who despise each other. While they spend the days sniping at each other, both know that the indecisive but good-hearted Matuschek couldn’t run the store without Kralik. Most of the film takes place within this setting, and the group of employees that populate the store (including a scene stealing Felix Bressart as Kralik’s coworker and friend) constitute a small family of sorts, and it’s Klara’s arrival which threatens to upset this balance. On top of that, Kralik and Klara each have an anonymous penpal, not knowing that each is the other’s secret correspondent, as drawn to each other by the written word as they are antagonized by each other in person.
The film’s balance of romance, comedy and vulnerability would seem an impossible balancing act, yet is one that Lubitsch handles with ease. While the audience is in on the joke, the characters are never played for fools, and the comedy never comes at the expense of the believability of the romance. Sullivan and Stewart had paired onscreen more than once before, and would pair again once more, but they’re never better together than they are here. When their scenes together call for them to be antagonistic, they ably convey a frustration that feels like genuine conflict rather than plot contrivance. This is equalled by the sincerity each shows when describing and pining for the penpal versions of each other whose identities they do not yet know. There are turns for the dramatic, particularly involving a subplot where Mr. Matuschek has reason to believe his wife is running around with one of his employees, but the heaviest moments neither weigh the picture down nor do they feel like non sequiturs. Everything lands perfectly.
Undiminished by the passage of time, The Shop Around The Corner remains in the top class of film romances. Its themes and portrayals are timeless. It represents a high point in the careers of all involved; it’s amazing to consider that Lubitsch’s previous film was Ninotchka and Stewart’s previous two were Destry Rides Again and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, a stunningly successful creative period in both men’s lives.
3D Rating: NA
The Shop Around The Corner is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. While the original negative no longer survives, Warner Archive’s release has been “remastered from protection film elements made right from the original nitrate negative,” and the team there have worked their usual magic to make it appear brand new. The image is immaculately clean, steady, and showcases a breathtaking range of beautiful silvery tones that retain a film-like quality. Grain appears natural and unobtrusive, and there is nary a hint of age-related damage, dirt or debris. Fine detail is present in abundance, from the texture on the suits to the stitching of the dresses. In projection or on larger displays, there may be the slightest occasional hints of inconsistency in sharpness and detail, but this is never distracting, and all but vanishes when viewed on a medium sized panel.
The film’s monaural soundtrack is presented via the DTS-HD MA lossless codec. Dialogue is well recorded, clear and easy to discern within the mix. The film’s soundtrack boasts a wonderful ambience, one which hasn’t been overly filtered or processed. As a result, there are occasional instances of slight hiss and other imperfections, but they are well worth the trade-off of maintaining the track’s fullness. You can almost feel the air inside the shop, and when the camera has a view of the street visible as seen from inside the shop windows in the back of the frame, the subtle sounds of pedestrian traffic can even be heard. The track has life to it, fitting for a movie so warm.
Special Features: 3/5
Theatrical Trailer (4:05) – An in-character Frank Morgan introduces the characters and store in his delightful trailer, presented from an element in reasonably good condition in standard definition.
A New Romance of Celluloid: The Miracle of Sound (10:57) – This black & white vintage short, presented in standard definition, takes the viewer behind the scenes of the MGM sound department.
Screen Guild Players Radio Adaptation (9/29/40) (29:46) – This half-hour dramatization reunites stars Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart and Frank Morgan reprising their original roles.
Lux Radio Theater Adaptation (6/23/41) (59:53) – This hour-long radio version features Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche taking on the roles originated by Sullavan and Stewart, and is hosted by Cecil B. DeMille.
The Shop Around The Corner remains one of the all-time film greats, and Warner Archive’s Blu-ray presentation is a welcome upgrade over the previous DVD edition. Lubitsch, Sullavan and Stewart are all at the top of their game, and this new remaster offers the best presentation the film has ever been given on any home video format.
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