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The Shop Around the Corner

The Shop Around the Corner(1940)

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teaser The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Behind the Camera on THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

James Stewart was at the top of Ernst Lubitsch's list to play the simple Alfred Kralik because the actor was "the antithesis of the old-time matinee idol; he holds his public by his very lack of a handsome face or suave manner."

At first, European actress Dolly Haas was penciled in for the female lead, but Lubitsch had second thoughts about casting an unknown actress for American audiences.

Ernst Lubitsch waited for James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan - his personal picks for the film's leads - to become available in the midst of their busy schedules. In the meantime, he shot and completed Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas.

While directing The Shop Around the Corner, Ernst Lubitsch drew upon his extensive experiences working in his father's Berlin shop as a young lad.

At the film's January 25, 1940 premiere at Radio City Music Hall, Lubitsch remarked, "I have known just such a little shop in Budapest...The feeling between the boss and those who work for him is pretty much the same the world over, it seems to me. Everyone is afraid of losing his job and everyone knows how little human worries can affect his job. If the boss has a touch of dyspepsia, better be careful not to step on his toes; when things have gone well with him, the whole staff reflects his good humor."

In preparation for her character, Margaret Sullavan purchased a simple dress for $1.95 that she thought a shop girl would wear but Ernst Lubitsch took one look and told her it was too stylish.

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan had known each other a long time before making The Shop Around the Corner. Both were in a summer stock company called the University Players. It was there that Stewart realized his potential as an actor, so he followed Sullavan and fellow player Henry Fonda to New York to begin an acting career in earnest.

Even though Margaret Sullavan was infamous for her quick temper and disdainful attitude towards Hollywood, James Stewart counted working with her as one of the great joys of his professional career. And because he knew her personally, he was more equipped than most of the cast and crew members to deal with her frequent and volatile emotional outbursts.

Even James Stewart could get flustered working with Margaret Sullavan, though, and one day it took him forty-eight takes to get a scene right. Stewart said: "We were in this little restaurant and I had the line: 'I will come out on the street and I will roll my trousers up to my knees.' For some reason I couldn't say it. She was furious. She said, 'This is absolutely ridiculous.' There I was standing with my trousers rolled up to my knees, very conscious of my skinny legs, and I said, 'I don't want to act today; get a fellow with decent legs and just show them.' Margaret said, 'Then I absolutely refuse to do the picture.' So we did more takes."

Soon after wrapping principal photography, Ernst Lubitsch talked to the New York Sun in January 1940. "It's not a big picture, just a quiet little story that seemed to have some charm. It didn't cost very much, for such a cast, under $500,000. It was made in twenty-eight days. I hope it has some charm."

by Scott McGee

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teaser The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Ernst Lubitsch, Hollywood's master of sophisticated comedy in the continental manner, surprised movie audiences with The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a sentimental, homespun story of combative coworkers in a Budapest leather-goods store who do not realize that each is the other's secret pen-pal sweetheart. Responding to the famed "Lubitsch touch," James Stewart as Alfred and Margaret Sullavan as Klara play the star-crossed pair with great warmth and sensitivity. The romantic complications are ironed out touchingly on Christmas Eve, with a heavy snow falling as the couple sits alone together in the darkened store and Alfred at last tells Klara that he is her "Dear Friend."

Lubitsch, who had signed with MGM to direct Ninotchka (1939) and one other film, owned the rights to a Hungarian play called Parfumerie, by Nikolaus Laszlo. (In the play, the secret lovers work in a perfume shop.) Lubitsch sold the property to the studio for $62,500 as his second production. In adapting the playas The Shop Around the Corner, both Lubitsch and scenarist Samson Raphaelson drew upon their personal histories. Lubtitsch had helped out in his father's tailor shop in Berlin as a youth, and Raphaelson had worked in a shop during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago just before the turn of the century. To make sure his film was stripped of the glamour usually associated with him, Lubitsch went to such lengths as ordering that a dress Sullavan had purchased off the rack for $1.98 be left in the sun to bleach and altered to fit poorly.

Stewart, enjoying a professional peak during a period that also included You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and his Oscar-winning performance in The Philadelphia Story (1940), would remember The Shop Around the Corner as one of his favorite films. He had been great friends with Sullavan since their early days in the theater in the 1920s, and some biographers have speculated that unrequited love for the actress (who married Stewart's pal, Henry Fonda, in 1931) was the reason Stewart remained a bachelor until 1949.

The modestly produced The Shop Around the Corner was a surprise hit, earning international profits of $380,000 at a time when Hollywood films were waning in the European market. Its influence has continued to be felt in various reincarnations of the story, first as a Judy Garland film musical called In the Good Old Summertime (1949), then as a 1963 Broadway musical entitled She Loves Me that was revived in 1993. In You've Got Mail (1998), the story was updated to the electronic age by having the secret lovers played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan correspond through email.

Producer/Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, Ben Hecht (uncredited), from a play by Miklos Laszlo
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: William Daniels
Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Original Music: Walter R. Heymann
Principal Cast: Margaret Sullavan (Klara Novak), James Stewart (Alfred Kralik), Frank Morgan (Hugo Matuschek), Joseph Schildkraut (Ferencz Vadas), Sara Haden (Flora Katcuck), Felix Bressart (Pirovitch)
BW-99m. Close captioning. Descriptive video.

By Roger Fristoe

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