On this week’s post, we’re digging into some more traditional Christmas movies. Perhaps not the best known ones, but ones that I think are pretty interesting. This week’s films are:
Ernst Lubitsch – The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Richard Donner – Scrooged (1988)
We’re going back to Lubitsch, who I think is now the most covered filmmaker on the blog, though I haven’t done that math. Kurosawa and Hitchcock might be tied with him. And we’re also covering Scrooged, which is a retelling of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.
Let’s get into it.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
This film centers on a small shop in Budapest, Matuschek and Co. The head clerk Kralik is the main character, and we learn that he is corresponding with a woman over mail after responding to a classified ad, basically a 1940’s version of a dating site. It’s getting serious, and he discovers that the woman he has been corresponding with is actually Clara, the new clerk at the store who he regularly conflicts with. How will he be able to reconcile his image of the woman in the letters with the woman in front of him? And how will she react when she learns that he is her romantic pen pal?
The film is directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the king of comedy in the 30s and 40s. It stars Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Frank Morgan, of Wizard of Oz fame. Stewart plays Kralik, the head clerk, Morgan plays Mr. Matuschek, the owner of the store, and Sullavan plays Clara, the new clerk at the store. The cast is wonderful, though everyone looks great in a Lubitsch movie, as the writing and directing are spectacular. If the plot sounds a little familiar it might be because this film was remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, which centered on dating in the early online era. I’ve never seen that film, so I don’t know how similar it is, but I imagine it’s got a lot in common.
The film takes place almost entirely in the shop, which sells luggage and knick knacks. There’s a running subplot about a musical cigarette box that plays a specific song. The store is full of little bits of Lubitsch goodness. There’s a running gag where whenever Matuschek asks a clerk for their honest opinion, one of the other clerks hides in the back.
But the story centers on Kralik and Clara of course. At first, it feels like the pen pal relationship might be a subplot or a roadblock on their opposites attract love story, because we only hear of Kralik engaging in this correspondence. But the night he plans to meet his pen pal, Mr. Matuschek has everyone work late. At this point, we also learn that Clara has the same appointment, revealing her as the pen pal. This leads to a great sequence where Clara tries to butter up Kralik, and he’s furious when he realizes it’s only so she can get the night off. But when she asks Mr. Matuschek, he agrees, leading Kralik to try his hand.
But we’ve been seeing another subplot here where Matuschek, who has previously seen Kralik as his right hand man, has been increasingly distant and angry with him. Even the seen of Matuschek dressing down the entire store is funny, as he yells at them, then turns into customer mode when someone arrives, then back into yelling as soon as she leaves. After the fight, Matuschek tells Kralik he will be happier elsewhere, and fires him, with a letter of recommendation.
But after all the employees have left, Matuschek is visited by a private detective who has been following his wife. He informs him that his suspicions were correct, that his wife has been seeing one of his employees. He assumed it was Kralik, but it was another man, Vadas. He feels terrible. He even attempts to kill himself before being caught and stopped by Peppy, the errand boy who came back to the store late. This scene is pretty shocking for 1940, but it’s shot beautifully. Matuschek goes to his office alone, then we see Peppy come into the store and begin looking around for someone to say hello to. He finally reaches Matuschek’s office and opens the door. The entire scene is played from outside the office, we just see a shadow, and the far side of the office. The shock is played entirely from Peppy’s reactions. He screams and runs into the office, then we hear a gunshot, and see a light fixture break. Then Peppy walks out of the office briefly, putting a gun on a nearby table before going back to check on Mr. Matuschek.
Meanwhile, Kralik has decided he can’t face his love after being fired and having nothing to offer her. He goes to the cafe they were planning to meet at with Pirovitch, an older employee who he confides in. He asks him to drop a note to her, but Pirovitch tells him that the only woman showing their agreed signal (a red carnation in a copy of Anna Karenina) looks just like Clara, because it is Clara. Kralik decides to go in and see if he is ready to reveal himself. But she continues to argue with him, telling him that she can’t imagine anyone loving him.
Kralik decides he isn’t ready, and leaves, essentially standing her up. But he is called to the hospital in order to see to Mr. Matuschek, who apologizes to him, and makes him the manager of the store. The whole movie turns on this night. Everything before it sets this up, and everything after it is a result of the night. It’s a really effective structure.
The relationship changes once Kralik learns who Clara is. After he stands her up, she spends two days in bed, until she gets a letter from her pen pal, while Kralik is visiting. He watches her reaction while she reads it, and she explains that her beau only left because he saw Kralik, which Clara accepts. Throughout this, Kralik is still trying to find the person he knows from the letters. Trying to discover if this woman he argues with everyday is really the thoughtful and intelligent woman he’s been corresponding with.
This all comes to a head on Christmas Eve, with the store having it’s biggest sales day in a decade. Clara and Kralik have agreed to meet each other that evening. There’s another great subplot here where Clara confides in Kralik that she is getting her boyfriend one of the terrible cigarette music boxes and Kralik is trying to talk her out of it. It doesn’t work until Pirovitch comes to her and tells her he also wants to buy one of the boxes for his uncle in order to ruin his Christmas. Clara finally relents.
The final scene of the film involves Kralik working towards revealing himself, but essentially torturing Clara by telling her a story about her boyfriend coming to meet him to ask about her, and giving her all sorts of details, such as he is unemployed, is bald, and on and on. It’s a hilarious scene. But of course, in the end, he reveals himself, and they kiss, looking forward into the future.
It’s getting to be a bit cliche on this blog. Another Lubitsch movie, another complete gem. And we’re not done. There’s at least a couple more I want to cover that I think might be even better than the ones I’ve covered already. Not to mention the lesser known ones that I haven’t even seen yet.
Every note in these films is perfect. The acting in Lubitsch films is always excellent, but having a talent like Jimmy Stewart just elevates the entire cast. It’s not just funny though, it’s touching. We’re watching a bit of a family drama here. The employees of the store aren’t just workers, they’re family. They take care of each other, they know about each others lives, they worry. On the night that Kralik is fired, Pirovitch goes to his home to check on him, to make sure he’s ok.
Lubitsch just has a way of putting characters in funny situations, but then finding the humanity and reality of the situation, showing us the real people underneath. If you’ve never seen a Lubitsch film, check on out right away. They’re exceptional.
Scrooged tells the story of Frank Cross, a high powered TV executive who runs IBC. His only concern is how many people are watching his network every night, regardless of which of his employees he hurts, or even who he scares to death with his TV advertising. He’s making all his employees work on Christmas, producing a live broadcast of A Christmas Carol with a host of television stars. But when he is warned by the ghost of a former boss that his life is in danger and he must change his ways, will Frank heed the warnings, or continue his moral decay.
The film is directed by Richard Donner of Superman fame, and stars Bill Murray as Frank Cross. It retells the classic Dickens story A Christmas Carol with a modern twist. Just like the original story, Frank is visited by three ghosts, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. These ghosts are there to show Frank the error of his ways and get him to change. They do this by showing him his own past, the present of other people in his life, and his future.
The film of course has it’s own viewpoint, but it follows pretty closely to the original story. Frank Cross, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, hates Christmas, and thinks it’s a scam to get people to care about each other. There’s a Bob Cratchett stand-in, Eliot, played by Bobcat Goldthwait, who gets fired early in the film. And we have a character replacing Tiny Tim, who is the son of Frank’s assistant, Grace. He hasn’t spoken in years since he saw his father die. Acting as Frank’s conscience in the film falls to several people; his assistant, Grace, played by Alfre Woodard, his brother James, played by John Murray, and his lost love, Claire, played by Karen Allen.
The film spends some time at the beginning setting up Frank as a cruel, angry person. He tells his executives that their promos are too nice, and shows them a shocking, terrifying promo that he wants to air. He then fires Eliot for talking back to him. We also see a scene where he’s setting up Christmas gifts and is choosing between a VCR and a bath towel. He gives his brother and Grace the bath towel. Meanwhile, he tells Grace that she has to work late, even though she has to take her son to a doctor’s appointment, as well as taking a walk with his brother, turning down an invite to Christmas dinner, and telling him that Christmas is a crock.
The film has a pretty harsh edge, even straying into horror here and there. The scenes where Frank is visited by his old boss and warned about the three ghosts coming to visit him is particularly scary, with Frank ending the scene being held out a window and dropped, seemingly to his death before waking up and realizing he’s alive. This leads him to call his old girlfriend Claire, who he says he hasn’t spoken to in 15 years.
The film never fully addresses whether Frank is actually being visited by ghosts or having some kind of mental breakdown that is changing his opinions, but I lean towards the fact that this is all real. But we see Frank slowly devolving into what can only be described as madness by the other people around him. At lunch with his boss after he is told he can expect to see the first ghost at noon, he begins to hallucinate, and accuses a new rival executive of being the ghost, before fleeing the restaurant.
One of the most interesting things about the film is the personality of the first two ghosts, past and present. In this case, the Ghost of Christmas Past is played by David Johansen, better known as the character Buster Poindexter. In this story, he appears as a loud mouth cab driver who takes Frank to various past Christmas’s. We see that Frank’s father essentially didn’t celebrate Christmas, giving his son veal instead of toys, and refusing to put up any decorations. We also see a very different Frank Cross meeting Claire, and falling in love. We also see the end of the relationship, when Frank chooses dinner with his boss over dinner with their close friends on Christmas. Johansen is great at needling Frank and knocking him down a few pegs.
This goes even further with the Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Carol Kane, dressed as a magical fairy. But instead of magically transporting Frank to various locations, she punches him, or kicks him, or some other kind of physical violence. Her role is also to make Frank feel like he isn’t as big a deal as he thinks he is. She shows him the lives of the people around him celebrating Christmas, like his assistant Grace, and his brother James.
Of course, the Ghost of Christmas Future is there to show Frank the dark result of his current path. The Ghost of Christmas Future doesn’t really have a personality, and is more of an ominous presence, in a large dark robe. When Frank opens the robe, he sees trapped souls screaming at him. He is shown his own funeral and is transported into the coffin as it is cremated. He finally has his realization, and when coming back suddenly realizes he should make the world a better place. He enlists the help of Eliot, who has returned to try to murder him, to take over the control booth during the live special and talk to the world. He tries to send out a message of hope and happiness.
I’m not sure how well this movie is remembered, or how much or little it is loved, but it’s a personal favorite of mine. I saw it in the theater when I was a kid, and it’s always stuck with me. During the end credits, Bill Murray actually talks to the theater while the actors are singing. It’s a really nice moment.
And Bill Murray is just excellent in the film. There aren’t a lot of actors who can play riotous comedy through a truly loathsome character. It would be easy for a lot of actors to lose the comedy, and just end up being loathsome, but even as the cruel Frank Cross, Murray manages to get the comedy to shine through. We end up rooting for his redemption, even as he’s treating other people like subhuman garbage.
There’s also a lot of nice early work from actors who would become bigger names, like Alfre Woodard. She is one of the few people that can really tell Frank that he’s wrong, and still keep his respect. But she’s also able to play the loving mother at home.
All in all, it doesn’t matter whether anyone else likes it, it’s special to me, and that’s why I’m sharing it with you. A movie I watch every year around Christmas.
The Double Feature
Another week, another two Christmas movies. Scrooged is undoubtedly a Christmas movie. And The Shop Around the Corner is often classified as a Christmas movie, but it’s somewhat less so. It only has one sequence set around Christmas, and it doesn’t follow the themes that we might expects a Christmas movie to follow. But I think that’s enough. It’s still a wonderful movie to watch at Christmas.
But do they work together. They’re both comedies, but very different kinds. Scrooged is incredibly dark, before becoming heartwarming at the end. Shop Around the Corner is mostly fun and funny, with some darker bits thrown in for contrast. I think they work ok together, but I’d probably do a different combination next time.
It’s almost Christmas. I’m on break, which is nice, but of course, it’s hard to take time off. A bit easier this year. I’ve got a few small things to work on, like this blog, which is nice. Soon it will be back to work. I’ll be ready.
So for next week, I haven’t decided what films to watch yet. I might do a different schedule since Christmas is right in the middle of my next writing cycle. But regardless, I’ll see you again soon.