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Ernst Lubitsch's 'Shop Around the Corner' Stocks a Funny Valentine

February 14, 1991|ELISABETH GRAHAM

Undeserving of its obscure status, "The Shop Around the Corner" offers two beloved stars at their romantic peak, a glossy MGM treatment and the blessings of a genuinely appealing love story.

Director Ernst Lubitsch, who forever defined sophisticated film comedy with "Ninotchka" and "Trouble in Paradise," brought his famed touch to more down-to-earth subjects in this 1940 film. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan paired for the fourth and final time as feuding clerks in a leather goods and luggage emporium who unknowingly share a pen-pal correspondence. As their on-the-job acrimony increases, their letters to "Dear Friend" grow more heartfelt.

Lubitsch is adept at examining the souls of his battling lovers and their co-workers. Drawn simply but warmly, special attention is paid to their fallibility. Samson Raphaelson's screenplay is accordingly subtle, sparkling with whimsical wordplay (the upright Stewart informs Sullavan that he "doesn't believe in mixing baggage with pleasure") and cunning character touches.

The fairy-tale feel of the "The Shop Around the Corner" owes much to Stewart and Sullavan, two appealing performers at their most appealing. Sullavan manages to make her character's neuroses all the more tempting to Stewart's frustrated dreamer. That role is, of course, a Stewart specialty, and his cleareyed boyishness here contains equal parts rascal and poet without the folksiness that surfaces in other performances. Together, the couple create a tangible emotional intensity.

Although the story's denouement is all but preordained, the beautifully sustained final scene tingles with suspense.

Why the film, with its Christmastime setting, hasn't made it into the holiday television rotation is a mystery, but "The Shop Around the Corner" is nevertheless a felicitous and funny valentine.

"The Shop Around the Corner" (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 93 minutes. Not rated.

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