The Shop Around the Corner – Ernst Lubitsch’s festive ‘touch’

The Shop Around the Corner - James Stewart & Margaret Sullavan

As you’ll have noticed, we’ve been pondering Christmas-themed movies a good deal on Movie Talk recently, but until now we’ve unaccountably overlooked Ernst Lubitsch’s classic 1940 romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner.

Set in the Budapest store of the title during the run-up to Christmas, the film stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as bickering sales assistants who do not realise that each is the other’s anonymous pen-pal – a plot that’s been recycled as the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and as the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Neither remake can hold an advent candle to the original, which shows off the director’s delicate visual and verbal wit  –  the fabled ‘Lubitsch touch’ – to the full. Beneath the comedy and the romance, though, there’s an undertow of sadness. The main characters are haunted by the fear of loneliness and the fear of ending up unemployed –  which makes the film an appropriately bittersweet confection for our own straitened times.

The Shop Around the Corner is playing at London’s BFI Southbank until 30 December.