Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Shop Around the Corner

The Shop Around the Corner
seen on TV @ TCM

In Cameron Crowe's book Conversations With Wilder, which I mentioned yesterday, director Billy Wilder talks at great length about his idol, Ernst Lubitsch. It's only recently that I've taken a good look at his films. Wilder was, and has remained, my favorite director for so long - it never occurred to me before to ever wonder who he was influenced by. In this section from the book, Wilder attempts to define what makes Lubitsch distinctive:
CC: It's been analyzed quite a bit by others, but what was "the Lubitsch touch" to you? 
BW: It was the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect. That was the Lubitsch touch. To think as he did, that is a goal worth having. Collaborating with him, he would have many questions. "What are you going to do with this story point?" "Let's find some way to say this differently." 
CC: How can one contemporize the Lubitsch style? 
BW: Find some new way to tell your story. That was the magic of Lubitsch. He is eternally essential to me.

Wilder cites as an example the silly little dress hat in Ninotchka. The first time Greta Garbo sees it, she hates it because, coming from Russia as her character does, to her it's a symbol of capitalism at its worst. The second time she just tsk-tsks at it. The third time, after she begins to fall for Melvyn Douglas, she buys it and wears it, no longer beholden to the things she'd been taught all her life about the world.

I knew about the movie The Shop Around the Corner before, primarily because it was remade as You've Got Mail, but I had never seen it, and it still managed to surprise me in places because Lubitsch found different ways to tell his story. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are clerks in a gift shop who, unbeknownst to each other, are also secret pen pals in love with each other. The irony, of course, is that they can't stand each other while they're working together. 

Jimbo finds out who Sullavan really is before she discovers his true identity, but instead of confronting her with it, like I expected, he strings her along for awhile, even going so far as to build up his alter ego as an actual person, just to get a better sense of her, to see her as a woman and not just as a co-worker.

The only thing I didn't like about this delightful movie is that I didn't believe for one minute that it's supposed to be set in Budapest. Stewart and Sullavan make no attempt at Hungarian accents. If their characters were American, that'd be different, but they weren't. You just have to accept the artifice, but I think Wilder would've agreed with me about the odd-ness of it, if this passage from Conversations, about his film Irma la Douce, is any indication:
... There is always something wrong about people not speaking the language of the foreign country where the picture takes place. And you could not stand a [Jack] Lemmon or a [Shirley] MacLaine speaking English with an accent, either. It's false. It just does not work.

On that last part I tend to differ with the master in that learning a foreign accent is something we expect now, whenever an actor does a movie in a country not his or her own. Heck, Meryl Streep does it almost every time she makes a movie! However, as I speculated earlier this month when I wrote about Barbara Stanwyck in Banjo On My Knee, perhaps the audiences of the day didn't hold their stars to such high standards. Maybe they wanted someone like Stewart to be recognizable as Stewart from one film to the next.

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