December 21, 2011

A Holiday Party at “The Shop Around the Corner”

The best picture I ever made in my life.
—Ernst Lubitsch
I don’t like any holiday movies.
—various people

I walked into a silent movie at a loud and lively holiday party the other night. It wasn’t like what happens when Buster Keaton walks out of the audience right into the screen to save a damsel in distress in Sherlock Jr. Buster wanted to be in the picture. Not me. I’d just hung up my coat and was on my way into a new downtown office space I’d never been in before and straight ahead of me filling an entire wall was an enormous image of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile the people at the party were talking, drinking, snacking on the hors d’oeuvres, and nobody seemed to be aware that looming on the wall behind them a larger-than-life George Bailey was having words with a monstrously enlarged version of the ruthless banker Mr. Potter, and no wonder, since you couldn’t hear what they were saying. It’s odd, but when you turn off the soundtrack, it drains the meaning from the film, cuts it loose, so that it becomes another element, a sort of fluid filmic wallpaper where it no longer really matters that Mr. Potter is evil and George Bailey is good, or that the good man is so deep in despair that he’s about to kill himself, all because of some missing moneyDVD rev. Without sound, without the ballast of an audience’s attention to it, even if you know the movie by heart, as I know this one, it turns into a ghostly dream from 1946 floating meaninglessly around in the background of real-life party circa 2011.

Sorry, I forgot, this is supposed to be a cheery Christmas column about films of the season where good conquers or simply ignores evil, Scrooge is transformed, George Bailey is saved by an angel in need of wings, Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas,” and Mr. Kralik and Miss Novak, the feuding employees of Matuschek & Company known in real life as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, discover true love on Christmas Eve.

This week’s Town Talk question elicited the usual answers, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the happy exception being the person who simply said, “I don’t like holiday movies.” The truth is, most of the best films from any period in the past 100 years have not been conceived of or even promoted as holiday movies. The whole notion suggests warm and fuzzy, bright and sane films to feel good about. So what are the movies getting serious play in the December 20 New York Times? The David Fincher-Rooney Mara version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and that September 11 Christmas Carol, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

A City Lights Ending

If you put the climactic moment of recognition from Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) on the wall at a Christmas party, the meaning might remain intact even if the sound were off. Except of course that you’d be missing two of the most appealing voices ever to come out of Hollywood. Margaret Sullavan’s is rare enough to justify all by itself the advent of motion picture sound (“strange, fey, mysterious,” in the words of another rare star, Louise Brooks “like a voice singing in the snow”). In the denouement of this Budapest fairy tale, Sullavan’s stunned expression behind one word (“You?”) says it all. Jimmy Stewart has finally gently revealed that the person she’s fallen in love with through the eloquent anonymous letters he’s been writing her (with some help from Victor Hugo) is he, Kralik, the quarrelsome fellow worker she’s insulted (he’s bow-legged, has a “hand-bag” instead of a heart, “a suitcase instead of a soul,” and “an intellect like a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work”). It’s not as overwhelming a moment as the one it somewhat resembles, the shattering ending of Chaplin’s City Lights when the flower girl realizes that the silly little tramp (“You?”) is the rich handsome savior who paid for the operation that restored her sight. When Sullavan makes the adjustment from misery to doubt to luminous joy, it’s as if the bow-legged jerk has turned into a handsome prince and who else but Ernst Lubitsch would end a romance with the handsome prince hiking up his trousers to show that he’s not bow-legged?

Behind the Scenes

The back story to The Shop Around the Corner is worth telling. For one thing, Margaret Sullavan was by all accounts the love of Jimmy Stewart’s life (even his wife, Gloria, has admitted knowing that he was “always madly in love” with Sullavan “and she with him”). A year ago, I described a scene between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938) in which Stewart’s passionately delivered speech about “the tiny engine” in a blade of grass shows “a true American idol coming into his own.” In fact, it was Margaret Sullavan who, more than any other person, helped Stewart develop his unique style as an actor. Only two years earlier, he’d been going nowhere in minor roles at M-G-M. According to Lawrence J. Quirk’s 1986 biography Margaret Sullavan Child of Fate, when she was a top star at Universal, she insisted on having Stewart play the lead opposite her in Next Time We Love (1936), and when he struggled under the direction of Edward H. Griffith, who complained that the gangly young actor was “wet behind the ears” and “going to make a mess of things,” Sullavan spent the evenings “coaching him and helping him scale down his awkward mannerisms and hesitant speech,” the very qualities that were destined to be central to his appeal. Later, Griffith himself was among those who gave Sullavan credit for making Stewart a star.

You can see Next Time We Love in all its disappointing entirety on YouTube. Like so many films from the period, it begins charmingly enough with Margaret Sullavan as a college girl who goes to “junior proms with little boys from Princeton.” She and Stewart are at Penn Station, where she’s returning to school  via a 1936 version of Jersey Transit (“Princeton Junction” the third stop called out) until a goodbye embrace with Stewart convinces them to get married instead; she’s a budding actress, he’s a foreign correspondent whose job will put a fatal strain on their marriage. The love scenes, which are mostly centered on close-ups of her face, reveal the real-life emotional bond between the two actors.

Sullavan and Stewart co-starred again two years after Next Time We Love in Shopworn Angel, but it’s not until The Shop Around the Corner that they share a film as true equals, both major stars. Only ten years before, Stewart had been a sophomore at Princeton and Sullavan was working at the Harvard Coop.


I’ve seen neither The Shop Around the Corner’s 1949 turn-of-the-century musical remake, In the Good Old Summertime, with Van Johnson and Judy Garland, nor Nora Ephron’s 1998 version, You’ve Got Mail, which takes the medium of communication from snail mail to email and moves the story to the Upper West Side with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I can’t say that I’ve avoided either film out of any particular devotion to the original, but after a YouTube tour of each of the concluding recognition scenes, I think my instincts were right. The 1949 version of the last scene follows the script almost word for word and move for move, but Van Johnson’s charm is a long, long way from Jimmy Stewart’s. When she’s singing, Judy Garland can light up the dimmest of movies, but she has no song to sing in the last scene and even if she had, it couldn’t have given the moment the magic it has in The Shop Around the Corner. In fact, Garland’s signature song is used to provide some emotional heft to the conclusion of You’ve Got Mail, with Harry Nilsson’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack to help Meg Ryan suffer the touching revelation as Tom Hanks approaches amid the flowers of Riverside Park with his dog, Brinkley.

A Bergman Holiday

Imagine a Woody Allen scene where for an upbeat holiday date, he takes a warm-and-fuzzy type girl to an Ingmar Bergman double feature of The Seventh Seal and Through a Glass Darkly. The idea started me wondering what the great European directors have done with the holiday. Fellini for Christmas? Antonioni, Godard, Chabrol? Can you think of a French Christmas movie this side of Desplechin’s not very joyous Christmas Tale? How about Germany? Christmas with Pabst and Murnau? A Fassbinder noel? Herzog for the holidays?

Strangely enough, that gloomy Swede, Ingmar Bergman has made not one but two great holiday films, The Magic Flute and Fanny and Alexander, which I just revisited on YouTube. As fine a Christmas scene as you’ll ever see begins with a gift exchanged between the grandparents followed by a kiss with a newly wed glow to it. Then, when they open the window and the sounds of the street come in, the grandmother peers out smiling at the children cavorting in the snow, and says, “Here comes my family.” True, things do get very bleakly Bergman before his autobiographical epic comes to a close, a possibility introduced in the title sequence, which is set to some of the most beautiful and funereal music ever written (the second movement of Schumann’s piano quintet in E flat major), life and death and love, as Alexander wanders through empty rooms that will soon be filled with festive life, calling the names of family members who are no longer there.