There is something so incredibly satisfying about a slow burn romance. While fiery, all-consuming passion that threatens to destroy the people that feel it is thrilling, there is an undeniable joy in watching two people circle one another growing closer and closer. It’s this, combined with an excellent array of hats, that make the legendary Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner an irresistible classic that’ll make you forget you’re sat watching it in your pyjamas eating out of a jar of Nutella with a teaspoon. Don’t pretend you’re not, I know my demographic.
The progression of enemies-turned-friends-turned-lovers (Yes, yes, we all hate the word lover but let me have it this once) works so well here because you enjoy the transition. It’s fun to watch Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) bicker, it’s fun to watch them learn to like one another, and the moment of realisation that they’ve really been pining after one another for all this time is the ultimate comfort food. Spoonfuls of delicious chocolate spread be damned.
I can see that for some, it’d be hard to believe that love can happen in retail, especially near Christmas. I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked the tills in a supermarket on Christmas Eve, and after that you aren’t in any mood to trade quips with your co-workers. You just want to sit in the staff room in total silence and enjoy 30 minutes of not being asked where the bloody turkeys are. But there’s something hilariously relatable in watching Sullavan lying to a customer just to sell a god-awful music playing cigarette box, or Stewart being asked how much the belt that says 2.95 costs.
There’s a somewhat bizarre subplot about an extra-marital affair and an attempted suicide which, while not inconsequential, remain unclear whether we’re supposed to laugh at them or not. “Well Doc, I’d say it’s a nervous breakdown” is not a line that I thought could ever be delivered in a way that is peppy-yet-detached, but here we are.
I suppose I should mention Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, the 1998 film inspired by the same play as The Shop Around the Corner, adapted for the early digital age. Ephron’s gorgeous New York is a city entirely unto itself, Meg Ryan is charming, and Tom Hanks is, well, Tom Hanks. He’s great. I love Tom Hanks, you love Tom Hanks, our lord and saviour Carly Rae Jepsen loves Tom Hanks. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say that letters are infinitely more romantic than an AIM chatroom, though. Although I’d argue that (while not exactly a bad thing) The Shop Around the Corner shows its stage origins more; there are very few locations and set pieces while the dialogue takes pole position in terms of importance.
However, whereas the use of bulky 90s computers and a slogan for a title has aged You’ve Got Mail, The Shop Around the Corner is less weighed down by existing in a smaller world. A 99-minute time capsule that makes every moment that the romantic leads spend together special; the world of the film is so small because it doesn’t need to be any bigger. Just Alfred and Klara matching wits and making one another (inadvertently at first) happy.
Watch it alone, watch it with friends, watch it with your Valentine. This is a excellently written film that deserves the same love with which it swells.
Also, Karlik is right, that is a hideous blouse.