The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan and the cast of The Shop Around the Corner

Considering that I grew up in the 90s and that I have a special place in my heart for romantic comedies, I feel like I need to put this out there: I’ve seen and enjoyed You’ve Got Mail eleventy-hundred-thousand times over. So imagine my surprise upon watching The Shop Around The Corner when the narrative takes a turn about half an hour in that plays exactly like a scene from You’ve Got Mail. I had to stop the film for a while and do some Googling because the similarities were too uncanny. Lo and behold, they were that similar because they’re based on the same play. From that point onwards, it was impossible for me to watch the film without the 90’s romcom at the back of my mind; and it’s similarly impossible for me to write this review without comparing the two.

While the films do have many similarities, the finer details of the story are what sets this 40’s film and its 90’s version apart. The Shop Around the Corner revolves around the lives of a group of gift shop employees, which Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is a part of and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) later joins. You’ve Got Mail on the other hand, revolves for two hours around Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The genius of the setup of The Shop Around the Corner is that we aren’t drowned with the romance of the two leads for the entire film. Where You’ve Got Mail treats its supporting cast merely as characters whose lives seem to revolve around Hanks and Ryan without desires and passions of their own, The Shop Around the Corner fleshes out its ensemble a lot more.

The film explores the relationships between the various employees and their employer, Hugo Matuschek. There is interaction, drama and subplots removed from the central romance, which serves to enhance the story further and give it layers that its modern-day counterpart just doesn’t have. There is a duplicitous, two-faced antagonist. There is how Matuschek casts a fatherly aura on his employees, which the film explores as we are treated to his day-to-day interactions with everyone from his most trusted and tenured employee down to the ambitious, precocious delivery boy. Considering the film is almost half an hour shorter than You’ve Got Mail, it’s notable how much more the viewer has to sink their teeth into. In addition, Stewart and Sullivan’s easy chemistry as the adorable leads, with the light and gentle manner in which Lubitsch treats the material only serves to enhance it even further.

Yes, the general structure of The Shop Around The Corner and You’ve Got Mail are exactly the same: Man meets woman. They hate each others’ guts. Man and woman are in love with their respective penpals. Man then discovers that the woman is in fact, actually his mysterious penpal. He decides to keep it to himself. Afterwards, the man befriends the woman, they fall in love, and he reveals himself to her in the story’s heartwarming climax. It’s a romance so saccharine that it easily appeals to the hopeless romantic; thus, it easily appeals to me. So ultimately, with a backbone as solid as Miklos Laszlo’s Parfumerie to bank upon, one really can’t go wrong with either film. The Shop Around the Corner in particular though, is just the more taut film that manages to say more in less time.

Rating: B+ (great)