The Shop Around The Corner
Over the Christmas weekend I showed The Shop Around the Corner to Grace and Lily, who both could have been more won over to Jimmy Stewart, to my way of thinking, but nonetheless enjoyed themselves.
Shop’s B-plot follows Frank Morgan (Oz from The Wizard of Oz) as Mr. Matuschek, who suspects his extravagant, offscreen wife of having an affair and has her followed by a private detective. He mistakenly believes her affair partner is Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Kralik, and fires him before attempting suicide; later things are put mostly-to-rights when Mr. Matuschek learns she had in fact been carrying on with the wonderfully oily and effeminate Mr. Vadas, and that Jimmy Stewart had remained a chaste and faithful employee all along. Stewart is restored, Vadas and the telephone ghost of Mrs. Matuschek are banished, and Mr. Matuschek takes his new errand boy out for a once-in-a-lifetime Christmas dinner. (I’ve sometimes seen Morgan’s Matuschek reduced to that awful old “gruff on the outside but deep-down kind-hearted” type; I don’t think that’s true at all, and if it were I should hate it, especially in a tight-fisted shop-owner. He’s generous when he’s feeling flush and dangerous when he’s feeling threatened, and he has the usual capitalist admixture of cruelty and sentimentality, which he doles out intermittently, according to how well he feels he is being taken care of.)
I should mention that while I cherish a real affection for The Shop Around the Corner, I cannot stand its self-appointed spiritual heir You’ve Got Mail. I am not above being charmed by either Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan, and my affection for Nora Ephron is unwavering, but You’ve Got Mail isn’t willing to counterbalance its sentimentality with brutality the way The Shop Around the Corner is, and suffers for it. The Shop Around the Corner takes cruelty seriously, like all good sentimentalists; You’ve Got Mail flinches and pulls its punches and takes refuge in cuteness instead.
The A-plot of The Shop Around the Corner of course involves Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan’s romance-by-correspondence, which is generally frustrated by their fractious relationship as coworkers. It’s very easy to do this sort of thing badly; You’ve Got Mail provides plenty of examples. Quarreling is not by itself an interesting indicator of romance, especially (as is so often the case in romantic comedies) when an audience is expected to cheer at the pairing of feminine indignation with masculine effectiveness.
What’s interesting about their romance is how it not only survives cruelty and betrayal on both sides, but overcomes it. The B-plot cannot do this. Mr. Matuschek does not consider forgiving his wife, and nobody else suggests it. (For what it’s worth, she bullies the errand-boy and sounds pretty rotten over the phone; I’m not trying to recover Bertha Mason here.)
Sullavan’s Ms. Novak is openly pleased with how ingenious her cruelty towards Mr. Kralik can sound when she really sets her mind to it; Stewart’s Mr. Kralik is quietly satisfied with the justice his passive, manipulative cruelty wreaks on her in return. She throws up ramparts of cruelty (“Instead of an intellect, [you’ve got] a cigarette lighter which doesn’t work”) and rains down arrows from above. He tunnels underneath them and cuts the supply lines.
Their final scene, where all misunderstandings are finally resolved, is such a strange one — it reminds me of Mr. Rochester dressing in drag in order to more effectively emotionally torture Jane Eyre. Sullavan has guessed perhaps 90% of the truth at this point, but she hasn’t yet been able to survey the landscape of what she knows, and Stewart creates a repulsive phantasm of “Mr. Popkin” as the man she’s been corresponding with (More than Mr. Rochester, in fact, it feels like a cruel reversal of the medieval motif of the Loathly Lady).
He speaks so softly, and so hideously; it’s Stewart at his gentlest and most mean-spirited. He outlines an old, grasping, unattractive, layabout, and won’t tear his eyes off Sullavan’s crestfallen-yet-resolute face, eager to see the effect of his cruelty working on her.
(Not for nothing, but I think the ending of The Shop Around the Corner has a great deal in common with the ending of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? “Then, you mean…all this time we could have been friends?” and “Klara, if I’d only known in the beginning how you felt about me, things would have been different” both hit on the same register of melodrama, self-pity, and wistfulness. Two divas cannot live peacefully together without reaching a crisis, and Jimmy Stewart plays a diva to the same degree as Bette Davis.)
The crisis arrives. Klara isn’t angry (One of the problems with late twentieth-century romantic comedies is they so often insist on anger where forgiveness and relief are called for), and Mr. Kralik isn’t angry either. She almost apologizes, and so does he; they both courteously deny that the other has anything to apologize for. They are now as polite and deferential to one another as two knights-errant — as polite and formal as they were once overly-familiar and uncharitable.
Because they are both aware of the depths of their own capacity for cruelty, and because they have reached those depths with one another, Stewart and Sullavan are transformed, and together they can safely abandon cruelty, which alone they could never do. Alone they can never resist their worst impulses; together they sail over them with ease.
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T.H. White’s The Once and Future King says of Lancelot:
His Word was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is the bad people who need to have principles to restrain them. For one thing, he liked to hurt people. It was for the strange reason that he was cruel, that the poor fellow never killed a man who asked for mercy, or committed a cruel action which he could have prevented. One reason why he fell in love with Guenever was because the first thing he had done was to hurt her. He might never have noticed her as a person, if he had not seen the pain in her eyes. People have odd reasons for ending up as saints.
In the world of Mr. and Mrs. Matuschek, the only possible answers to betrayal are suspicion, repudiation, reprisal. You do your best to hurt the person who has hurt you, and then you get away as fast as you can. In the world of Novak and Kralik, it is possible to live out Lear’s speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live…”
Upon such sacrifices the gods themselves throw incense! Quick as a flash, without signs or preparation, Novak and Kralik sacrifice all their cruelty, their ego, their resentment; they laugh at everything they once took seriously, and take no insult where before they had been mortally stricken. They disarm. She’s mortified that she ever called him bow-legged; he laughs remembering how, in his hurt pride, he had considered pulling up his trousers in public to show off the straightness of his calves.
Now she can ask him to do it. No one is proving anything this time; they are reenacting their own cruel behavior “once more, with feeling.” It’s a travesty of unkindness that is now animated by generosity and warmth; they’re both the Lords of Misrule now. Incidentally, this is is why The Shop Around the Corner has to take place during Christmas, because both Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan have to suddenly transform their values, not in an act of sudden willpower but a shared moment of grace. It’s only when you are wrong does it seem important to be in the right; when you are willing to do the right thing, looking foolish or mistaken no longer matters. When you are in the wrong, everything seems important; when you are right, nothing does. You can afford to be frivolous; this is how generosity is born.
Stewart pulls up his trousers graciously, lightly, with aplomb; it’s a joy to comply with her lightest request, because he’s living rightly now. He can be of service at last, where throughout the rest of the entire movie — right up until that final moment — he had confused being of service with being humiliated; it was his job to be of service, he was good at it, and he hated it passionately. His legs are straight as an arrow, pointing directly up to God.