Alfred Kralik [played by James Stewart]: “There might be a lot we don't know about each other. You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.”
Klara Novak (Miss Novak) [played by Margaret Sullavan]: “Well, I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter... which doesn't work.”— The Shop Around the Corner (1940), screenplay by Samson Raphaelson and an uncredited Ben Hecht, based on a play by Miklos Laszlo, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
You might know The Shop Around the Corner for its adaptations—musicals onscreen (In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson) and onstage (She Loves Me), as well as a snarky, not-as-fun Nora Ephron film (You’ve Got Mail). But the original is worth seeing for its own wonderful sake.
The plot is simple enough: Two clerks at a Budapest gift shop can barely stand one another, not realizing that they're falling in love through the mail as each other's anonymous pen pal.
If you are getting tired of watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time, this film—also starring James Stewart—is a wonderful holiday replacement. It’s contains a terrific screenplay, subtle direction by the incomparable Lubitsch, great humor and poignancy in equal doses, plenty of opportunities for a terrific ensemble cast (including “The Wizard of Oz” himself, Frank Morgan) to shine, and one of the great MGM pairs, Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.
Stewart appeared in this classic the same year as the movie that won him his only competitive Oscar, The Philadelphia Story. In many ways, his chief clerk here is a trickier role than his flashier award-winning one as cynical reporter Macaulay Connor. Kralik, a loyal, longstanding employee, is honest to a fault—and, at least on the surface, to Miss Novak, all too prosaic. Stewart’s pained restraint is remarkable as he responds to her insult above as a blend “of poetry and meanness.”
As for Sullavan—I considered her all-too-short career (and all-too-tragic life) in this prior post. Stewart had many other female co-stars throughout his long career—some more beautiful, some with more fire—but none as unique as Sullavan. She may never have been better onscreen as Miss Novak—vivacious, intelligent, romantic, and, in her need for a job on the eve of the holidays, more than a bit desperate. Without her, Kralik might be fated to live his life as an all-too-stolid bachelor, but Miss Novak may be in even more need of the stability he provides.
Central to Sullavan’s marvelous performance is what silent film actress-turned-film commentator Louise Brooks pointed to: “That wonderful voice of hers. Strange, fey, mysterious — like a voice singing in the snow."