Love at first sight lies at the heart of many film romances, whether comedic or serious. But what about falling in love when neither person has seen the other or even knows the other’s real name? Just in time for Valentine’s Day (or a little ahead), The News-Gazette Film Series presents “The Shop Around the Corner,” Hollywood’s paradigm example of “love before first sight,” at the Virginia Theatre next Sunday at 1 and 7 p.m.
Adapted from Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 “Illatszertar” (English title, “Parfumerie”) by University of Illinois alumnus Samson Raphaelson and directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch, “The Shop Around the Corner” tells the story of lovers who communicate only anonymously by mail, never in person, except that, unknowingly, they work in the same shop.
In Depression-era Budapest, Matuschek & Co., purveyor of leather goods, is still successful enough to employ three men and three women as clerks and one delivery boy. Head clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) has worked for, and been friends with, owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) for years, but in the last day or so, Matushek’s attitude toward him has cooled. Matuschek suspects Kralik of having an affair with his wife and fires him shortly before Christmas.
Kralik does not suspect the reason for Matuschek’s change of heart, and the firing comes at a particularly bad time for him, as he was planning to meet and propose to the witty, intelligent, romantic woman with whom he had been corresponding for months. Now without a job, he feels he cannot offer her life with him and so decides to forego the meeting.
Meanwhile, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a relatively new clerk who from the start developed an antagonism toward Kralik, is looking forward to meeting the man with whom she has been exchanging letters anonymously for months. He’s her ideal man — intelligent, kind, romantic — and she hopes that he will propose when they meet. Sadly, she waits for him in the agreed upon café in vain.
How these situations resolve themselves produces one of Hollywood’s classic romantic comedies, with impressive talent on display both in front of and behind the camera.
Sullavan had already earned an Oscar nomination for her role in “Three Comrades” (1938), a romantic drama where her character was dying of tuberculosis. Stewart had been nominated for best actor for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and would win an Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story,” which he made the same year as “The Shop Around the Corner.” Morgan had received an Oscar nomination for his leading role in “The Affairs of Cellini” (1934), but at this point in his career, he was undoubtedly better known for playing the title character in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). Joseph Schildkraut, who plays the store’s combination of toady and lothario, had actually won a best supporting actor Oscar for “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937).
Screenwriter Raphaelson was never even nominated for an Oscar, but he was one of Hollywood’s most important writers. Inspired by an Al Jolson performance he attended here in Champaign-Urbana as a student, he wrote the stageplay on which “The Jazz Singer” was based. He also wrote six other screenplays for Lubitsch before this one (including classics “Trouble in Paradise” and “The Merry Widow”) and a couple after.
Lubitsch created epics and comedies in Germany in the silent days of the cinema, then moved to Hollywood where he made some of the classic comedies of the 1930s. In 1935, he became the production manager at Paramount, the only major director to run a large studio. His tendency to micromanage other directors’ projects led to him being fired after a year, however.
He moved to MGM where he planned to make the Laszlo adaptation with Sullavan and Stewart as a sort of change of pace from the sophisticated comedies set among the upper classes and royalty for which he was best known. The characters and setting in “Shop” are decidedly middle-class, and he wanted Stewart specifically because he did not fit the mold of a standard handsome leading man. When Sullavan and Stewart could not start filming when Lubitsch needed them because of prior commitments, he used the delay to turn out another classic 1930s comedy, “Ninotchka,” starring Greta Garbo in her first comic role. (Felix Bressart, who plays the timid — or prudent — married clerk here, also appeared in “Ninotchka” as one of the three Soviet reps being investigated by Garbo’s title commissar.)
In interviews later in his life, Lubitsch described “The Shop Around the Corner” as his favorite of the films he’d made. It turns up at No. 28 on the American Film Institute’s list of “America’s Greatest Love Stories” and has influenced artists in various media for decades.
In 1949, MGM turned the story into the Technicolor musical “In the Good Old Summertime,” starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson and moving the action to a turn-of-the-century Chicago music store. In 1963, “She Loves Me” premiered on Broadway with the same story as “Shop” but with new music. “She Loves Me” had Broadway revivals in 1993 and 2016. The BBC made a TV production of this version in 1978; it shows up online in unauthorized uploads. And in 1998, “You’ve Got Mail,” directed by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, updated the story to the 1990s with e-mail replacing physical letters, the characters becoming more upscale and wealthier, and the setting moving to New York City bookstores.