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One of the most distinctively Hungarian films from the classic Hollywood era, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner is not only based on Miklós László’s play Parfumerie but takes place and was filmed on location in Budapest. Meanwhile, the film also sticks to the original Hungarian character names, increasing its authenticity further.
The plot revolves around the lives of the people working in a titular leather goods shop, explicitly focusing on salesman Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and the newly hired Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). The Shop Around the Corner provides us with the perfect basis for a classic screwball comedy. After all, it is apparent early on that Kralik and Novak can’t stand each other. Yet they have also been anonymously exchanging letters with each other, both slowly falling for their secret pen-pal.
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In my opinion, one of the greatest achievements of Lubitsch’s film is that it manages to inhabit the classic Christmas template while embracing a realistic and human focus. Here the festive season is not excessively jolly or kitsch but rooted in a rare realism. But let me explain this further. Screwball comedy is notable for satirising love stories where the two leads engage in a humorous battle of the sexes. In most cases, the result exclusively consists of over the top conflicts, absurd situations and extremely fast-paced storytelling – as seen in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940). Yet, Lubitsch takes the central conflict of the screwball genre and creates an endearing comedy that doesn’t shy away from also portraying the lingering sadness surrounding its characters. The result is a genuinely funny, moving and emotional film that demonstrates the complexities of our human interactions, perceptions and judgements.
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While James Stewart’s name is already associated with the ultimate Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life – Lubitsch’s film is just as charming. Just take a look at the numerous adaptations the original play has inspired, from Robert Z. Leonard’s musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949) to Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Kadhal Kottai, an unofficial, Tamil-language remake in 1996. But it is Lubitsch’s original film that remains a timeless classic that is worth rewatching every festive season.