In Budapest, the Matuschek gift store is something of a staple of a certain high street, and the staff there are like a family to one another, but aware they are in the service of the boss (Frank Morgan) who oversees all and his whims tend to dictate what is sold. However, he does prefer to ask the advice of his top salesman Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) who has a very good nose for what will sell and why, so that even if they disagree, for example on the subject of a musical cigarette box, Alfred is more often than not proven correct about the gift's potential. Today there is a new arrival in the shop, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), who is desperate for a job, but doesn’t hit it off with Alfred at all - though they are connected.
Of the films preferably watched at Christmas, there are two tiers, the top one which features the season as an integral part of the plot, and the lower one which has the holiday as its setting, and therefore could easily be seen at other times of the year without it upsetting the particular mood of the point in the calendar you are watching it, be that summer or winter. James Stewart was lucky enough to star in two staples of the season in both forms, as It’s a Wonderful Life has become a ritual for many decades, and The Shop Around the Corner is now more of a cult Christmas movie, partly because of his involvement, but also because of the presence of his leading lady, the deeply troubled Sullavan.
For some reason, a sympathy perhaps borne of watching a star who we know to be very upset in private life or saw that life end prematurely or both, generates a fanbase, and Sullavan was one of those unfortunates whose time on Earth was not a happy experience, so when you see her in this ostensibly light and fluffy romantic comedy drama, bright and engaging, it's difficult not to remember she was extremely temperamental thanks to her damaging unhappiness. In many ways, her performance here was not so very different from many a leading actress would have delivered with such strong material to guide her, but Sullavan had a curious fragility to her (one of her final roles was in a comeback picture playing a terminally ill woman).
She wasn't the first actress to contain those endearing qualities and wasn’t the last, no matter how bad her behaviour could be when the cameras were not rolling, and her other performances have tended to slip into obscurity, but the Christmas connection is what keeps The Shop Around the Corner alive in the collective memory. That was part of the genius of the director Ernst Lubitsch, who believed this, among all the acclaim he received, was his finest achievement, a modest romance which was entirely setbound (in the same shop, too, more or less) that made him nostalgic in tribute to his department store-owning father back in Germany before the wars arrived. The knowledge that Europe was embarking on another devastating conflict preyed on the minds of pretty much every émigré filmmaker in Hollywood during this era.
Lubitsch chose not to reference the war, though some have seen echoes of the Nazis in the persona of the closest thing this has to a villain, the smooth salesman Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), an acknowledgement that there were evildoers abroad back home who would contrive to drive innocent citizens to their deaths. Yet this never gets that dark, in spite of a theme of subterfuge in almost every scene, as the main example is presented in benevolent terms: the letter writing between Klara and Alfred. They don't know they are one another's beloved pen pals, which lends resonance to their prickly professional relationship as we can perceive neither are bad people, they have just got off on the wrong foot and that has sent them into an abrasive state of affairs they could set aside very easily should they just realise how much good they could do for each other. This is also where the confection grows rather uncomfortable, as they say some fairly nasty things, though you could also acknowledge if they can get over that - and themselves - then there's hope for us all. Music by Werner R. Heymann.