Unconscious Reflection and Foreboding in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

2 December 2012

Art, like life, happens through conscious and unconscious expression.  Narrowing art to simply cinema, it must then be true that there are intentional, purposeful actions, references, and language in films as well as “unintentional” happenings that slip in from the unconscious.  While this has and will always happen, it is of particular interest to look, retrospectively, at films from a particular region on the eves of that region’s significant historical moments and see what, if any, unconscious premonitions, be them anticipatory or foreboding,  become visible in hindsight.

One of the most tumultuous eves in American history is 1939-1941.  Not only had Americans been struggling through The Great Depression for over a decade, this particular time was the eve of America’s entrance into World War II.  Interestingly enough, 1939 is, arguably, the American film industry’s strongest year to date; some of the country’s most renowned cinematic accomplishments arrived in 1939: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Wuthering Heights, The Women, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Love Affair.  And, between the releases of these classics and America’s declaration of war with Germany in December 1941, more of the nation’s most celebrated cinema came about: Fantasia, The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator, Rebecca, The Bank Dick, Citizen Kane, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, High Sierra, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Sullivan’s Travels, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Shop Around the Corner.

The last film mentioned, The Shop Around the Corner, is of particular interest this week in Reel Club.  Released in 1941, this film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and although this is an American film, it is set in Budapest, Hungary, the same setting of Parfumerie, the 1937 play by Miklos Laszlo that the film screenplay was adapted from.  “The shop around the corner” is Matuschek and Co., and the film follows Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan) and his staff: Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), Ilona (Inez Courtney), Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), Flora (Sara Haden), Pepi (William Tracy), and Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut).  Kralik has been exchanging letters with a woman whose ad he found in the newspaper, and he is increasingly smitten with the depth of his anonymous correspondent.  Simultaneously, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) enters Matuschek’s looking for a job.  After thinking on her feet and making a remarkable sale in front of Mr. Matuschek, she gets the job, but, unfortunately, Klara and Kralik get on each other’s nerves right from the start, and after six months of working together tensions run high between Kralik and Klara.  Separately, Mr. Matuschek believes his wife, Emma, is having an affair, and Matuschek suspects Kralik.  Eventually, and because of his suspicions, Matuschek lets Kralik go as an employee, which thaws the icy relationship between he and Klara.  That same night, Kralik learns his secret correspondence is actually Klara, but he does not reveal his identity to her.  Moreover, it comes to light that Vadas is the employee Mrs. Matuschek is having the affair with, not Kralik.  Matuschek welcomes Kralik back to the store just as the Christmas holiday approaches.  On Christmas Eve, Matuschek’s makes an impressive income, which warms the hearts of the store’s owner and employees.  And, just as Klara is preparing to leave for the evening, Kralik declares his love for her and confesses he is her correspondence.

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Although it is set in Hungary, The Shop Around the Corner comments heavily on American life in 1940 and also forebodes the impending tragedy that would rattle America, and the world, in the four, war-ridden years immediately following the film’s release.

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Evident from the opening scene, The Shop Around the Corner addresses America’s economic hardships in 1940, specifically how the hardships impacts average, working-class Americans.  The film begins early on a summer morning with Pepi riding his delivery bike for Matuschek’s in Budapest’s bustling city center.  He arrives at Matuschek and Co. where Mr. Pirovitch is already waiting, reading his newspaper.  Pepi immediately begins riling Pirovitch by suggesting Pirovitch arrived early to show-off his loyalty and dedication in front of the boss, all in hopes of receiving a raise.  Thus, the first exchange in the film is motivated by and revolves around money.

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Next, Flora arrives and asks Pirovitch if his son is feeling better.  Pirovitch tells her the boy saw a doctor and is now doing well.  Instantly, Flora comments on how “pricey” that doctor is, and Mr. Pirovitch agrees.  He then reveals that he plans to cut back on cigars to pay the medical bills. Again, the conversation centers on money and how people are struggling to make end’s meet.

Then, Ilona arrives with a new silver fox stole.  Her eye-catching accessory gets the attention of Flora, Pirovitch and Pepi, and she tells the small crowd she tried to resist the expensive purchase, but she was so in love with the stole she could not let it go.  Less than three minutes into the film, all of the action has surrounded money, specifically how expensive the cost of living is and how people find it difficult affording the things they want and need.

The next person to arrive at the store is Kralik, and his entrance signals a slight shift.  As soon as Kralik approaches the crowd, he pulls out money, all coins, and asks Pepi to buy him some bicarbonate soda to treat a mild case of indigestion afflicting him.  After all the talk about money from the other three characters, Kralik’s coins solidify the significance of money to this opening scene of The Shop Around the Corner.  Moreover, rummaging through coins also signals to viewers that Kralik is not an affluent man, and he may have barely enough to get by.  (This is reinforced later when Vadas pulls out a large wad of paper money.)  Obviously, finances are a conscious part of the opening scene in The Shop Around the Corner; however, the film is, likely, not conscious about how provocative the economic references are to The Great Depression in its first few minutes.

After Pepi’s departure, Vadas arrives, dressed sharply and seeming upbeat.  Interestingly, he is not well received by the others, perhaps not simply because he appears to have more than the rest, but because he flaunts himself and attempts instigating conflicts amid his co-workers.  The way he ignites hostility leads into the foreboding suggestions in The Shop Around the Corner, which are unconscious political and social feelings of 1940 slipping into the film.

First, as Ilona talks to Kralik she suggests Mrs. Matuschek, who Kralik had dinner with the night before, must have had her face lifted.  Vadas, who stands alone, behind the crowd, says, “I think Mrs. Matuschek is a very charming woman.”  His comment sends Ilona into a fit, as his statement suggests he believes Ilona must not think Mrs. Matuschek is not charming simply because she’s had her face lifted.   Directly afterward, Kralik reveals he ate too much goose liver at the Matuschek’s and that’s why he wants the bicarbonate soda.  Vadas asks, “Wasn’t [the goose liver] any good?” His second comment also instigates trouble, as his latest remark implies Kralik thinks his difficult digestion happened as a result of the Matuschek’s food.  Kralik becomes furious with Vadas and the way he spun words.

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In 1940 people were legitimately concerned about what they said, who they said it to/in front of, and how their words might be misconstrued.  This was an unstable time, therefore a dangerous one.  Everyman could not afford to have his/her words misconstrued if that meant his/her income could be compromised. Moreover, on a bigger scale, political uncertainly all over the world made it imperative for every person to be mindful of their actions and words.  Evident from the characters reactions to Vadas, tensions ran high, and considering how frightening real-life events were at the time (and subsequently became) Vadas becomes more than a character; Vadas is symbolic of a threat challenging average, working-class citizens.  All of the references to money and Vadas’ pot-stirring manipulation happen in, roughly, the first six minutes of the film.  Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner is, without a doubt, a loaded movie.  Again, there is no doubt some this conflict regarding money and manipulation was intentionally injected into the film, but the unconscious amount the references parallel America and the world in 1940 is something that only became conscious retrospectively.

As Lubitsch’s film continues, his use of Pirovitch addresses impending dangers, felt in 1940, regarding Jews.  Although the film is American, its Hungarian setting puts Pirovitch, a Jewish character, in a more precarious position (Hungary joined the Axis party in WWII).  Audiences at the time would have felt fearful for Jewish men and women in Europe and resonated with the director’s decision to highlight a dynamic, loyal, hardworking, and loveable man; Pirovitch sacrifices to care for his sick child, he reveres his boss and family, and he consistently helps his friends to be best of his ability.

However, at the start of the film, still in that aforementioned opening scene, when Mr. Matuschek arrives at the store, he asks who put a particular item in the shop’s display window.  Timidly, Pirovitch owns up and says it was his decision to put the product in the window display.  Matuschek gives Pirovitch his approval on the decision, much to Pirovitch’s relief.  Yet, in two later scenes, Mr. Matuschek looks around the store for someone to give him an “honest” opinion or to tell him the truth about a product or event, and each time Matuschek says the word “honest,” the camera cuts to Pirovitch and captures him running away.  Evident from the opening scene, Pirovitch is honest, yet twice Lubitsch goes out of his way to show Pirovitch running away from honesty—or, perhaps running away from having to be dishonest.  Presumably, this was thought of as comic relief, but it is actually a rather noteworthy remark about how (un)wise it could be for a Jewish person to be honest at the historical time.  Pirovitch’s avoidance of honesty is an incredibly foreboding, unconscious claim made in The Shop Around the Corner, a claim that could not be fully understood until the ominous feelings of the time unfolded themselves in the coming years.

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So many American films from the eve of WWII are saturated in unconscious foreboding about the historical climate that immediately followed their releases. Often revered for its wholesome and relatable narrative and characters, The Shop Around the Corner typically finds itself on classic holiday lists (which is how it found a spot this month in Reel Club), but the historical moment this film was made in, in partnership with the film’s director, gives the film even greater significance.  More than just a seasonally appropriate romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner comments, consciously and unconsciously, on its moment in time, therefore the film is more than entertainment; The Shop Around the Corner, like its contemporaries, is a testament to American feeling, ideals, and fears while struggling through The Great Depression and on the eve of World War II.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 02/12/2012.

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