Friday, December 12, 2008

A forgotten Christmas classic just 'around the corner'

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a Christmas standard along side such films as “A Miracle on 34th Street” and “A Christmas Story,” but it is not the only Christmas themed Jimmy Stewart film available. “The Shop Around the Corner,” released in 1940, is a warm, funny romantic comedy that is just as worthy of being a Christmas classic.

“Shop Around the Corner” is set in a department store in Budapest around Christmas time and is about anonymous pen pals (Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) who are falling in love, but unknowingly work together and hate each other.

This basic premise was the inspiration for 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. In that film the pen pals, now communicating via e-mail, don’t work together, but are working for competing bookstores, one a small independent, and the other a corporate book store not unlike Barnes and Nobles.

In both films, it is the male lead who first finds out the true identity of their pen pal and must find a way to deal with getting the written relationship and real relationship onto the same page.

The script by Samson Raphaelson, based on a play by Miklos Laszlo, is full of witty barbed exchanges and fast paced dialogue. After Stewart finds out Sullavan is his true love, at least on page, while she is still unaware, her put downs gain an extra sting.

When Sullavan tells Stewart: “I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag; instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter, which doesn't work,” it is enough to break your heart.

The film has plenty of great scenes. A personal favorite is when Sullavan tells Stewart what she’s going to get her pen pal for Christmas and to Stewart’s horror it is something he can’t stand. Stewart sends in a fellow employee, the likable Felix Bressart, to convince her otherwise. The punch-line to this scene is classic.

“Shop Around the Corner,” much like “It’s a Wonderful Life” has some darker themes. Both films feature a character who attempts suicide. It is this willingness to go to a dark place that makes “Shop Around the Corner” superior to “You’ve Got Mail,” but the film is by no means a downer. Quite the opposite, like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it buoys the spirit.

The film’s department store setting will be all too familiar to anyone who has worked retail, especially during the holiday season. Even though the film is approaching its 70th anniversary it is hardly dated. Sure the prices are far cheaper than they are now, but when it comes to sales, some things never change.

Stewart and Sullavan’s charming central performances are surrounded by a delightful set of supporting characters. The most familiar of the supporting cast is Frank Morgan, who will forever be remembered as the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. Morgan plays the owner of the department store and for those who are only familiar with his most famous role it is a real treat to see him in a role with more screen time.

William Tracy as Pepi, the sharp tongued errand-boy, is a scene stealer. For much of the movie, Tracy’s Pepi has to hold his tongue because of his lowly position, but when he is promoted to clerk he let’s his mouth run free with some very funny results.

It is hard not to stop smiling during the final scenes of the film. Even before Stewart and Sullavan inevitably get together, there is a genuinely uplifting scene between Morgan and another character that truly captures the spirit of the holiday season.

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