Wrinkly Film Club* 07/12/17: The Shop Around the Corner

*I ran a film club at the Gosforth branch of Abbeyfield residential care homes from June to December 2017.

What I had envisioned as the first of three festive film clubs ran into difficulties. (I’ve written about the second in a previous post, and the third didn’t happen.) The activities coordinator booked an event during our weekly slot and didn’t informed me. The care staff kindly asked around the residents who weren’t planning on attending the carol-singing, and one – a newcomer who had fast become a regular – was interested in giving The Shop Around the Corner (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) a go. 

While annoyed at the almost wasted 45-minute walk in the cold and a growing feeling of being side-lined in a role I answered a specific ad for back in the spring, I was happy to watch this classic movie in good company. We were also joined by a new volunteer who I hope will take over the club for a while to free me up to explore doing an oral history/memory project with the residents.

The Shop Around the Corner was adapted from Miklós László’s play Illatszertár/Parfumerie first performed in 1937, the year before the Hungarian playwright became one of many Jewish émigrés to the USA. The Hollywood film retains the Hungarian setting but not the European political climate of its time. It focuses on two bickering co-workers who don’t realize that the other is their long-term anonymous romantic correspondent. While quick-witted and scathing humour abounds, this romantic comedy driven by misunderstandings and dramatic irony also engages with emotional fragility, sexual harassment, mental illness, loneliness, betrayal and suicide.

At a time when psychoanalysis rose in popularity, it appeared that so too did the commercial potential of being in love, especially in December. In the lead up to Christmas, purchases of the cases, boxes and wallets (i.e. vessels for ‘baggage’) sold in the store become increasingly for others instead of the self. Earlier in the year Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) manages to land a job at the Matuschek and Company leather goods gift shop by selling a musical cigarette box as a re-purposed candy box to a woman she assumes wants to lose weight, convincing her that its incessant playing of the Russian love tune ‘Ochi Chërnye’ will put her off eating sweets. (Some characters display fat-phobia at times.)

After the establishing act, gifts are sought as an obligation to loved ones, including Klara wanting to buy one of the long-unsold novelty boxes for her unnamed intended. Unbeknownst to Klara, her colleague and adversary Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) discovers that she is his anonymous lover, and persuades her to buy him a stylish wallet instead. This is of course after cruel words have been exchanged in the ‘psychological confusion’ caused by their falling in love. 

The musical cigarette box plays the role of MacGuffin and elephant in the room, its presence and regular mentions recalling the very fact of Klara’s employment at the shop, her physical entry into Alfred’s life, and Alfred’s better judgement as it was he who advised their employer Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) against stocking it. Despite the product’s stagnation, and driven by people’s need to purchase gifts, Christmas Eve becomes their ‘biggest day since ’28’, that is, since before the global impact of the 1929 Wall St crash.

The shop’s success comes despite – or perhaps because of – Matuschek’s absence following a suicide attempt after a private investigator provides evidence that Matuschek’s wife has been having an affair with another employee. It is apparent that his overwork and obsession with the shop factored in the breakdown of his marriage. While supposedly still in hospital his attempts at psychological sales tactics at the shop window backfire when the customers recognize him, so well-known are he and his manoeuvres. This results in him staving off loneliness at the end of the film by essentially buying friendship and company with the new shop boy for Christmas day as everyone else is paired off or has family commitments. In a way mildly reminiscent of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he only becomes generous and lets go of bitterness to offset his own guilt and pain.

As for the lovers, they begin the work of being true to one another and developing mutual respect. Without them realizing, this first emerges while they hate each other. During a storeroom argument, Klara observes that no one – but specifically Alfred – has tried to grab her in this situation during her employment at Matuschek’s. She confirms that being harassed is why she left her previous job (the onus being on the victim). The shop appears to be a respectful workplace, but each male employee (it’s 1940, so yes it’s heteronormative) is preoccupied with a wife or lover of some description: Alfred agonizes over someone he believes to be a world apart from Klara; Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) is a happy family man; Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is knockin’ boots with the boss’s wife; Matuschek is obsessed with the shop; and even Pepi the delivery boy (William Tracy) has a girl at the root of his ambitions. Alfred’s harsh words to Klara that they are not interested are frankly true; she is not considered as worth harassing by the male employees of Matuschek and Company.

The more problematic elements in the film aside, it is a good watch, particularly if you enjoy humour and delivery that sting. It is hard to gauge its reception as the one attendee had to leave before the end. Some others had joined us after an hour when the singing was over, but had little concept of what was happening. It is now part of the home’s collection to try it again in future.


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