Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, The Shop Around The Corner is a classic romantic comedy set in the Matuschek and Company store in Budapest. It stars James Stewart as salesman Alfred Kralik, and Margaret Sullavan as shopgirl Klara Novak. The two employees despise each other, without realising that they are one another’s anonymous pen pal, and have fallen in love by mail.
The story is adapted from the play Illatszertár by Miklós László, first performed in Budapest in 1937. He emigrated from Hungary to the United States in 1938, and had been working under contract at MGM as a writer. Director Ernst Lubitsch bought the rights to the play for $16,500 soon after its debut with a clear vision of the picture he wanted to make it into, but faced several obstacles before he could bring it to the big screen.
Lubitsch, born in Berlin, had been directing films since 1914. He left Germany for Hollywood in 1922 after Mary Pickford personally contracted him to direct her, and the two worked together on Rosita (1923) before their creative partnership prematurely fizzled. Undeterred, Lubitsch worked prolifically throughout the 1920s and 30s, transitioning almost seamlessly from silent to sound with films for major studios like Warner Bros., MGM and Paramount. He became known for his dazzling musicals and sophisticated romantic comedies, many of which were financially successful alongside their critical acclaim. The Love Parade (1929) – Lubitsch’s first talkie – was released in November 1929, just three weeks after the devastating Wall Street Crash. It drew huge crowds, and was a significant factor in keeping Paramount in business during the immediate fallout of the financial crisis.
Lubitsch sold the rights to the play to MGM for $62,000 – a notable profit – on the understanding that he would produce and direct the film. His desire for creative control over the project had proved to be a roadblock with other studios, and he had considered setting up his own production company to make the film before the deal with MGM. Lubitsch was certain that he wanted James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan for the lead roles, but both were unavailable due to other filming commitments. Deciding to wait for his desired actors to be free rather than settling for a recast, he directed Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939). Under the guise of being a light romantic comedy, Ninotchka was one of the first films made in the United States to be openly critical of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Garbo’s first truly comedic role.
James Stewart came to The Shop Around The Corner fresh from the success of Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Destry Rides Again (1939), with the former earning him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It was a particularly busy point in his career; Stewart had appeared in twenty one films since his debut in 1935, and was beginning to cement his reputation in Hollywood as a first-rate actor. Despite his flourishing career in America’s epicentre of glamour, he was no stranger to the shop work he’d be depicting in Lubitsch’s film – in his adolescence, Stewart had helped out at his father’s hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania, which had been in the family for three generations. Before leaving for Hollywood, Stewart had been expected to inherit and run the family business. His decision not to do so remained a point of contention for many years between him and his father, who urged his son to leave Hollywood for what he considered a more respectable way of life.
Much like Stewart, Sullavan’s parents had disapproved of her inclination for the performing arts. In her late teens she was living with her sister in Boston, and unbeknownst to her parents was paying for her studies in dance and drama with the allowance they provided her. When they discovered how she was spending their money they greatly reduced the amount given to her, forcing Sullavan to find another source of funding if she wanted to carry on her studies. She took a job as a clerk in the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore, which not only allowed her to continue honing her craft but also provided her with ample source material for the making of The Shop Around The Corner.
Sullavan was a keen stage actress who made her Broadway debut in 1931, and although the plays in which she starred were not always financially successful, her performances were generally well received by critics. It was during a performance of Dinner At Eight in New York in 1933 that she was spotted by John M. Stahl, who had recently made Back Street (1932) starring Irene Dunne, and was now casting for his next picture Only Yesterday (1933). Sullavan had already received – and rejected – movie contract offers from Paramount and Columbia, disliking restrictive terms that would keep her from acting in the theatre. She agreed to sign a three-year, two-picture-per-year deal with Universal, with a salary of $1,200 a week and a stipulation in her contract which would permit her to return to the stage when scheduling allowed. She arrived in Hollywood on her 24th birthday, May 24th 1933, and made her screen debut the same year in Stahl’s picture.
James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan had known each other for some time before production began on The Shop Around The Corner, having met almost 10 years previously. Between 1929 and 1932, the dramatic societies of Harvard and Princeton University joined together in Cape Cod as a summer stock theatre company called the University Players, in which both Stewart and Sullavan performed. Also a member was Henry Fonda, who would become a dear and lifelong friend of Stewart’s, and married Margaret Sullavan in 1931. The union was short lived however, with the pair separating after just two months, ultimately divorcing in 1933. Despite his close relationship with her ex-husband, Sullavan remained fond of Stewart, and believed strongly in his talent and ability to become a star. She was responsible for landing him his first real co-starring role; when making Next Time We Love (1936), she had personally recommended him to the casting department at Universal, and during filming she spent time coaching him in acting. They would work together again on The Shopworn Angel (1938) before reuniting for The Shop Around The Corner.
The film was released on January 12, 1940, and was a great hit both domestically and overseas; at a time when American films were suffering at the international box office, The Shop Around The Corner earned $380,000 in foreign markets. Lauded by contemporary and modern critics alike, it has come to be considered a classic, and has inspired several remakes. Arguably the most famous, You’ve Got Mail (1998), includes a nod to the original film in the name of the bookstore run by Meg Ryan’s character. After its release, both Stewart and Sullavan continued to work in Hollywood, with Stewart going on to become one of its most treasured performers.