Tuesday, February 16, 2010

1940: The Shop Around The Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)

1940: The Shop Around The Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
The themes that probably affect me the most in film are loyalty, friendship, and some kind of unrequited love (even if  it might change at some point during the course of the movie).  Of all the films about unrequited love, this is at the very top of my list, along with Letter from an Unknown Woman, Holiday, Gertrud, and Splendor in the Grass. Like those other movies, this one pains me and moves me at the same time.  It's not during horror movies that I want to talk to the characters on screen, it's during this type of film.  I just want to save them from any more heartbreak.  

This is another desert island film for me.  I sold furniture for four years so the retail aspect hits especially close to home.  And the romance connects with me as much as anything that's ever been put on film.   

Other contenders for 1940: I have a few major gaps this year, too. Probably the biggest is the fact that I've never seen John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath.  Other films I still need to see from this year are Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm, Disney's Fantasia and Pinocchio (I've seen the latter, but it's been thirty plus years so it's really like I've never seen it), Preston Sturges' Christmas in July and The Great McGinty, Ludwig Berger's The Thief of Bagdad, and John Ford's The Long Voyage Home.  At some point, I'll need to revisit Alfred Hitchcock's two entries from this year, Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca.  I enjoyed them both upon first viewing, but neither after that viewing would contend for my top pick.  The only real contender this year would be Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday.  It's a film I really love, and one where I find so much of it totally brilliant -- Grant, Russell, the dialogue, and everyone's timing, to name but a few things. I finally though gave the year to the Lubitsch as it affects me as one of the most romantic films I've ever seen.  

8/9/10 I watched Preston Struges' The Great McGinty.  It has an uncharacteristic tone for Sturges, somewhat somber, somewhat melancholic, and not as manic as some of his other work.  It also boasts another one of his incredibly abrupt and offbeat endings.  I enjoyed it although not near as much as some of his later work.  

8/13/10 I watched John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath.  Ford's incredible eye is more obvious than ever.  But I continue to struggle a little with some of the hokum and sentimentality in his work.  A well-told, certainly well-observed film, but not always fully felt for me.  

8/18/10 I watched Preston Sturges' Christmas in July.  I can't say I necessarily enjoyed it, that it's that much fun.  But it certainly is incisive and has a lot to say about success, class, and the nature of perception. Sturges' unique absurdist perspective and love for wacky sounding proper names are on great display.  And of course, so is his talent.

8/19/10 I watched Disney's Pinocchio.  It's amazing how dark the film is at times.  I'm thinking particularly of the donkey transformation.  But there's great feeling in this one, and I really felt it a significant step from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  A wonderful Disney film, full of imagination and warmth.  

8/20/10 I watched John Ford's The Long Voyage Home.  I'm still somewhat new to Ford's work.  I've probably seen less than ten of his films.  But I'm starting to see more and more clearly the reason for his huge reputation.  There is a depthfulness and heavy melancholy to some of his work that gives it the kind of heft I've experienced with some Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bresson, and Dreyer.  Toland does some extraordinary things here, there are four or five completely gut-wrenching scenes, and there's a realism to a couple of the action set pieces that is absolutely masterful.  A very strong work for me.  

9/2/10 I watched Ludwid Berger's The Thief of Bagdad.  It's not totally my type of movie.  But for what it is, flights of fantasy and Technicolor deliciousness, it's extremely well done.  Has a little The Goonies and a little Clash of the Titans.  

3/15/11 I watched William Wyler's The Letter.  Exotic melodrama with Wyler keeping you guessing much of the time.  One of Bette Davis' strongest performances, and as close to a noir as I've seen from Wyler. Not excellent but some pretty fine work.  

2/25/13 I watched Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm.  An extremely well-made film that makes you think perhaps more than it makes you feel.  But it is frightening and communicates the horrors of fascism as well as anything I have ever seen.  Borzage's film seems like it might have been one of the main things Tarantino saw as he put Inglourious Basterds together.  Featuring some terrific set pieces, Borzage builds suspense by working through the characters rather than through music or any other cinematic manipulation.  Borzage who was known for his melodrama impresses here with an extraordinary sense of restraint.

7/27/14 I watched Michael Powell's Contraband.  Reminiscent of several Hitch films during this period, light, chaotic, "chase movies" for lack of a better term, Powell makes it entertaining enough without ever really becoming memorable.  That is, all but the opening shot which seems to introduce us to a different type of entry into a work, a silent single shot of the main character before titles before anything.  

1/13/18 I watched Edward F. Cline and Ralph Ceder's The Bank Dick.  Much of it is extremely funny, and really everything up until the final act whirls and whizzes to great effect out of the off-kilter Fields mind.  But it slows down once the final car chase begins and never quite regains the height of its initial promise.  
11/23/21 I watched Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night.  The first of what I believe were three films that Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray made together, all of which are excellent.  Preston Sturges wrote the script for this one.  Leisen impresses with the amount of emotional depth he is able to create, producing greater feeling by repeatedly choosing complex character moments over entertaining turns of plot.  He shows such restraint, and willingness to defy typical Hollywood narratives, that by the end he is able to deliver a final moment of Bressonian gravity and weight.   


  1. Great choice. Really, you can't go wrong with either this or His Girl Friday, two diametrically opposed takes on the romantic comedy genre that are nonetheless both great films. This film is probably the peak of Jimmy Stewart's "good guy" persona, his best role where he's not mining darker territory with Hitchcock or Mann.

  2. Hey, Ed, thanks so much for the comments! I agree with everything you say here. I love Stewart in this, and then of course I love him just as much when he goes in the other direction with Hitchcock and Mann.

  3. Yes indeed Jeffrey, this is a superlative choice for your top spot. Personally it's my favorite Lubitsch, and the one that is accessible for everyone, even those who have difficulty navigating or appreciating his sophisticated style. Stewert is as marvelous and irresistible here as he is in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, which he made right before and after this deliriously entertaining and superbly-written gem.
    Well, my own #1 film of 1940 is Ford's depression era epic THE GRAPES OF WRATH, though again, deciding between GRAPES, SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and Hitchcock's REBECCA is no easy task. But GRAPES is surely one of the supreme American masterpieces and Greg Tolan's black and white cinematography is about as stunning as has ever been crafted in the cinema. All the performances (Kael complains about Jane Darwell, but I don't see any fraudulence there) are top-rank, and I consider this one of the prime examples of brilliant transcription of literature to film.

    My Own #1 Film of 1940:

    The Grapes of Wrath (Ford)


    The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch)
    Rebecca (Hitchcock)
    Pinocchio (Sharpsteen)
    His Girl Friday (Hawks)
    Fantasia (Sharpsteen)
    The Philadelphia Story (Cukor)
    The Mortal Storm (Borzage)
    The Back Dick (Fields/Cline)
    The Great McGinty (Sturges)
    They Drive by Night (Walsh)
    The Thief of Baghdad (Korda)
    Abe Lincoln in Illinois (Cromwell)
    Christmas in July (Sturges)
    Pride and Prejudice (Leonard)

    Another great Golden Age recap!

  4. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I'm gonna go with Ford's The Long Voyage Home, a film as beautifully drunk on Toland's photography as it is on O'Neill's words and the amount of liquor its characters consume. It's a welcome alternative to the piety of Ford's other 1940 film The Grapes Of Wrath, which I've never been particularly fond of.

  5. Thanks so much, Sam! I love what you write here, particularly this, "...the one that is accessible for everyone, even those who have difficulty navigating or appreciating his sophisticated style."

    I can't wait to see THE GRAPES OF WRATH. For some reason, it's also one that has slipped through the cracks.

    I probably should have added THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT to my list of runners-up. I really like it, although I guess for me there's still a huge space between it and my top two picks.

    Thanks, as always, Sam, for the excellent perspective!

  6. Doniphon, I expected nothing less! I assumed that was the inspiration for your blog's name. It's one I'm embarrassed to say I haven't seen yet. But it's definitely on the short list.

    Thanks for the great comments, as always!

  7. I also love SHOP, which I watched for the first time a few months back. I was blown away at the subtle touch Lubtisch had with both romance and comedy (a subtlety he uses in all his film, I'm now seeing).

    As for best of the year, I'd have to throw in my vote for REBECCA, which has always been one of my favorite Hitchcock films.

    Still you can't go wrong with Hitch, Lubitsch, or Ford for any of the top spots. Throw in two of the best Disney films and two other classic comedies from Hawks and Cukor and this is obviously a great year for movies!

  8. "It's a welcome alternative to the piety of Ford's other 1940 film The Grapes Of Wrath, which I've never been particularly fond of."

    Ah my friend Donophon, if there is piety, blame it on Steinbeck. It remains one of the masterpieces of American cinema, for it's stunning visual tapestry, brilliant script and thespian showcase. Yeah, that 'we the people' coda at the end may be tiring, but 90% of the film is a riveting portrayal of have-not transients trying to survive amidst the most sordid of circumstances.

    I like THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, but frankly it's nowhere in the same sphere as GRAPES, which is one of the greatest of all American films. Like CITIZEN KANE, the overwhelming critical accolades it has maintained over decades are well deserved. It's Ford's greatest film, even trumping THE SEARCHERS, methinks.

    Stanley Kauffmann's review is the best I've read, and McBride's volume on Ford is essential. I bet, Donophon, being as astute as you are you know these well.

    Donophon, let me make a prediction. You are NOT a fan of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY nor THE INFORMER. Am I right?

  9. Troy, I well remember your recent superlative review of SHOP!!!

  10. Hey, Troy, great to see you here! We're in total agreement on this one. And I couldn't agree with you more, 1941 was a really fantastic year for film. I'd love to read your review on SHOP. Is it on your blog?

    Thanks so much, Troy!

  11. LOL Donophon!!!

    How clueless am I? Should I not have known how much you revere that alternative Ford film, from just gazing at the name of your blog?!? You wear your enthusiasm on your sleeve, which is something I tip my cap to you on!!

  12. I think I gave my thoughts on SHOP in a Monday Morning Diary. I can't find any review I wrote, so Sam is likely thinking of that back and forth. I watched it during the 90's poll, so I probably didn't take the time to write about it.

    I'm also noticing a lack of reviews on it from my blogroll, where I swear Ed or someone else wrote about it at some point. Anyways, I think it may make my "watch every Christmas" rotation, so perhaps I'll write about it then.

  13. Hey Troy, sounds good! Just great to know others love this movie as much as I do. It's one you hear a little less talk about, it seems.

  14. "The Shop Around the Corner" presents Lubitsch at his best. An excellent film to always watch. My own personal selection is Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" Fonda’s performance and his famous speech toward the end of the film always resonates with me. Greg Tolands photography is perfection here.

    Other works from 1940 I favor include:
    The Shop Around the Corner
    The Great Dictator
    The Great McGinty
    They Drive by Night
    The Bank Dick

  15. Thanks so much, John! It seems like we're all in about the same pocket. I hate that I haven't seen the Ford yet, but I will rectify that very soon.

  16. This film was my first exposure to Lubitsch, and oh, how I cherished it. It makes me want to see more of his films. Luckily I taped Ninotchka off TCM last week. Trying to reserve time to watch it.

    The scene where Frank Morgan fires James Stewart over suspicion regarding a possible infidelity is a surprisingly devastating scene in what is otherwise a very funny and touching romantic comedy. Ever since then my deepest fear has been for that to happen to me, too, over such a bewildering misunderstanding at work!

  17. I chose Rebecca in my own countdown, but there are a number of outstanding films this year. I'll stay with Rebecca now, but I'll also put in a good word for another of my favorites and one that is not always brought up in countdowns like this - William Wyler's THE LETTER. I love it... the cinematography is gorgeous and it has my favorite non-All About Eve performance from Bette Davis. In fact, I'll go ahead and make a rough list for this year:

    1. Rebecca (Hitchcock)
    2. The Letter (Wyler)
    3. Christmas in July (Sturges)
    4. The Great Dictator (Chaplin)
    5. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford)
    6. The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch)
    7. The Westerner (Wyler)
    8. Remember the Night (Leisen)
    9. Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock)
    10. The Great McGinty (Sturges)

    Really a great year! And I think I might try and watch The Long Voyage Home tonight, so hopefully I'll enjoy it.

  18. Adam, I couldn't agree more! There's a chilling realism at times, on top of everything else that Lubitsch does so well here. I'm totally with you on this one.

  19. Dave, great list! I've never seen THE LETTER either but have added it to my queue. Wyler is someone I think is slightly underrated. I'm a big fan of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, ROMAN HOLIDAY, and THE HEIRESS.

    Thanks, Dave, as always for the great insight!

  20. Sam, I admire your passion of course, but you've got me all wrong on Ford. I like The Informer, and I love, love, love How Green Was My Valley. And I guess my comment implied piety is bad in film, or at least in Ford's films. Not so, and Ford never made a film that didn't have piety in some sense. But Ford focuses on the relationship between piety and blasphemy, between preachers and prostitutes, between the church and the saloon, and The Grapes Of Wrath does not have that balance for me. Of course that doesn't automatically damn it, and I'm not dismissing the contributions of Ford and Toland and Fonda, but I don't think it works as a film, and once the Joad family leaves the farm I think it becomes repetitious and dull in a particularly unenlightening way.

  21. Oh boy Donophon, I couldn't disagree with you more on THE GRAPES OF WRATH, which is as stirring and progressive a film as Hollywood has ever made, but it's a powerful indictment on capitalism and the cry for community. No novel - and let's face it, Steinbeck's book is one of the greatest written in the 2oth Century - in my view has been more perfectly translated to the screen, and the later scenes are for me especially "enlightening" as there is this familial progression to something more wide-reaching. Of course the unity of the film is derived from the leitmotiv of the rattling old truck in which the Joad family travels with their clothes, pots and pans and ramshakle furniture. Ford shows himself to be a master of visual language in this film, and the presentation runs the gamut from that highly stylized chiaroscuro lighting to the documentary realism of the encampment scenes. Considering Ford's own conservatism, this was a remarkably impassioned and faithful transcription from it's source. Few films in the history of American film show the possibilities of the form as art, but many subsequent films are indepted to this one.

    But I am thrilled to hear of that LOVE for HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, which I also share!