Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Shop Around the Corner

On the home stretch at Wonders in the Dark's Romance Countdown: I kick off the top ten with Shop Around the Corner.

There is a strange irony to love stories. To be stories, something has to change - and so it seems if you want the film to end with lovers together, happily ever after, they have to spend the bulk of the film apart. Enemies, even. And on the other side - if you show the lovers together, show their happiness in the film, the story demands that something changes - they have to be parted. And so the irony - the most powerful depictions of love and desire in films are often in the doomed love affairs, while in films with happy endings, lovers spend the whole show fighting - a merry war perhaps - but war, any any case... Tragedies and romantic comedies - Romeo and Juliet; and Much Ado About Nothing - the models for so many love stories, in their broad shape at least. Blissful lovers parted; bickering enemies united.

But that offers a challenge to a clever storyteller - how do you show people in love and still have a happy ending? How do you honor the conventions of romantic comedy (about what keeps people who belong together apart), while showing them actually in love? I suppose there are as many ways to do this as there are romantic comedies - mistaken identities, amnesia, class expectations, the comedy of remarriage - or - this one. What if the lovers are pen pals? what if they have never met, but have fallen in love with one another in words, two lonely, clever people stuck in their hard lives in the big city - who find they have a bond? What about that? And then - they meet in the real world - and take a dislike to one another - and - then you'll have a story! You'll have a story where they are in love with one another from the start, and enemies from the start; they can be as romantic as they want; they can bicker and fight and put each other down to their heart's content. (And cleverly - well enough they start to be impressed with their mutual nastiness.) Yes - then, you just have to play it out, the revelations, the consequences of lies and truths and self-deception - until, of course, it all comes together.

That is the plot of The Shop Around the Corner. Jimmy Stewart (as Kralik) has a pen pal he has fallen for, "dear friend"; Margaret Sullavan (Clara) shows up looking for a job. He is sympathetic, but can't help her - but she plays him against his boss to get the job, and they are off to a bad start. But she is, of course, Dear Friend - and off they go.

Though their story is just part of the film. There is a major subplot running alongside it - Matuschek the store owner's wife is having an affair (he receives an anonymous letter) - he thinks it is Kralik and fires him. It is not Kralik, though, and the twin humiliation of his wife's faithlessness and his mistreatment of Kralik drives Matuschek to attempted suicide; he is saved by the errand boy, and more plots are spawned, as Kralik comes back, and Pepi rises in the world. But for the first half of the film, this subplot haunts the main story. It's rooted in the same issues - secrets, deceptions, suspicions; anonymous letters and double talk; loneliness, loss. Both stories revolve around the question of who your true friends are. The plots are intertwined - Kralik's relationship with Clara is poisoned early by her willingness to get between Matuschek and Kralik, and take advantage of the rift between them; the trouble between the men (caused by Matuschek's suspicions) continues to pit Kralek and Clara against each other. The subplot ruins their hopes for one another - the pen pals were supposed to meet, but Kralik losing his job makes him avoid the rendezvous, though he can't help spying - and so learns the pen pal is Clara. And when the truth comes out, and Matuschek brings Kralik back, the romance gets another chance - though not without trouble.

It's a simpler story problem now - Kralik knows more than Clara does, and what will he do with it? He isn't exact happy to find that Clara is his correspondent, but it doesn't take him long to start thinking. And when he starts thinking - and paying attention to her - and he starts to fall in love. It pays off, in the end - as sweet and tender a moment of discovery as you get on film, all of it set up by the structure, the way their anonymous love is played against their workaday dislike for one another, and plays into their discovery of one another. Kralek finds that he likes her - he hears his correspondent's voice in Clara, he starts to imagine her as the woman he writes to. And maybe she likes him - she is brought to admit her own initial attraction to him, her foolish acting that stopped any connection before it started. But it doesn't matter - by then, she has him, completely - and he just has to let her know.

And so he tells - and she reacts, and all of their desires and conflicts and inner torments and outer strife come together, as they come together:

Very sweet. But then again, it is an incredibly sweet movie - a sweetness paid for by a spine of bitterness. Faithless lovers, attempted suicide, betrayals and cruelties; poverty, fear - everyone lives on a knife's edge of fear, if they were to lose this job, what could they do? - there is an edge to the whole story, a sense of just how close everyone is to ruin. The film is expressly about that shop around the corner - a quaint, gentle place, the friends and comrades there - but that shelter belies what happens within. Things burn; nothing is what it seems. It is a film about loneliness, the desperate loneliness in the city. Loneliness lies under much of Clara and Kralik's dilemma. They are so alone, they aren't really even at ease with themselves - they function well enough in their daily lives, but they know it is empty, that it leaves them bitter, in fear that they will never know anything else. Their letters are a lifeline - a thread connecting them to something better, not just to another person, but to a better version of themselves. They don't just find a kindred soul in the letters - they find their own better selves. And that too pays off in the end - how out of that profound solitude they have, in fact, found someone, a real person, who connects to the self they want to be - very nice.

And of course, it isn't just them. The shop, and the city itself, is full of all the trouble they have - loneliness and betrayal, no one quite honest with each other, no one quite connecting. But Lubitsch pays this off too. Mr. Matuschek's Christmas dinner with Rudi might be as moving as the actual ending of the film - someone who has lost his home and someone who has left his home connecting in the snow. What community there is is hard bought - but there it is.

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