I was talking with someone this week about the lack of film knowledge among the people in my generation.  It’s true.  The majority of us are film illiterate.

Just because you’ve seen The Godfather (’72) and Taxi Driver (’76) doesn’t mean you know about film.  It’s a start, but about the equivalent of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and saying you’re versed in the classics.

We ended the conversation affirming something I’ve known for awhile now: my moral obligation to pass along the films that I’ve seen to others. Don’t confuse this as a statement of vanity.

We could argue all day about whether film needs saving.  I’m arguing that people need saving, and film can help.  Film is contagious.  It has a way of grabbing your mind and soul and not letting go.  If we root ourselves in good film, at the end of the day, we can all be film preservationists.

If you’ve ever seen a film that no one else you know has seen, it’s a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you feel like you’re the owner of a terrific secret while simultaneously you feel a great emptiness when you realize everyone else you know isn’t in on the secret.  So share it!

And so, we find ourselves in Budapest, Hungary at, well…the typical shop around the corner in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (’40).  It’s a charming place, busy with the hum of the proletariat, working hard but never getting ahead on their small wages.

Against this backdrop, we find one of the best romantic comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood between Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart. The Shop Around the Corner is one of the film gems that I mentioned earlier.  Admittedly respected among film buffs, it’s wrongfully fallen into obscurity as the lesser companion to better-known comedies of the era such as The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby (’38) or His Girl Friday (’40).

If you’ve ever held down a service job, you’ve probably worked at a place like Matuschek and Co.  There’s the overbearing boss, the snobby dandy, the brash kid, the older man ticking off the days until retirement, the young man unhappy with his place in the world (Stewart) and the newly hired go-getter (Sullivan).  Stereotypes were common in early Hollywood pictures, but Lubitsch’s characters come across as familiar friends and associates rather than offensive caricatures.  The film deals with such serious topics as suicide, depression, joblessness and adultery.

The film’s hook is the relationship between Stewart and Sullivan, and it’s not a stretch to see the same kind of knowing, honest comedy fans see between Pam and Jim in The Office. Stewart’s relationship with Sullivan begins on a sour note as he tries to convince her there are no vacant positions at Matuschek and Co.  Sullivan, desperate for work, won’t hear it.  She impresses Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan, best known for his portrayal of the Wizard in Wizard of Oz (‘39)) to such a degree that he hires her as a full-time clerk, leaving Stewart with egg on his face.

While Stewart’s professional life might not be going according to plan, his personal life is red hot. He’s in love with a woman he’s met through a personal ad in the newspaper.  They write letters to one another, filling them with passionate, intelligent language.  As far as he’s concerned, Stewart’s met the love of his life in the Mystery Woman at the end of those letters.

Sullivan has also found her true love through written correspondence.  More than once, she points out the fact that Stewart could never be as intelligent and romantic as her Mystery Man.  All the while, the two give each other grief about the petty things we encounter in our daily lives.  If this premise sounds somewhat familiar, it was remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, which does a good job capturing the farce and good nature of the original.

The action is bound to only a couple of locations, but the character interactions are so enjoyable, that we barely notice the change in scenes anymore than we would for a stage play.  However, for such a simple production, Lubitsch’s photography is excellent.  Stewart and Co. are captured in rich black and white. Lubitsch is constantly moving the camera and there are some amazing dolly shots, particularly in the scene where Sullivan excitedly sticks her hand in the post office box only to find it empty.

The film’s writing, acting and technical achievements remind us that The Shop Around the Corner is a special comedy and one that deserves to be shared like love… or a letter.

– Jonathan Michels