The Shop Around the Corner ★★★★

Of all Lubitsch's intoxicating romantic comedies, this may be the most joyous and the most tangibly human, at least for most of its duration; concluding at Christmastime, it's an ideal bit of holiday atmosphere on top of the sheer earthy delights of its dialogue and its lengthy but never stagy scenes (taken from a play by Miklós László). It's most famous for its wry coupling of coworkers James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (both outstanding, the latter especially), who are unaware that they are each other's gradually overheating pen pals as they simultaneously make life hell for each other on the job; but even more interesting is the film's status as a workplace ensemble comedy about the ins and outs of the crew at a Hungarian leather shop. Complicated interrelationships like these don't find much outlet in classic Hollywood, but Lubitsch captures them with considerable depth and manages particularly to get at the essence of a semi-tragic figure in the form of the store owner played by Frank Morgan, while Felix Bressart is wonderful as the office's conscience, Joseph Schildkraut equally so as a conniving manipulator. The film's agelessness comes out of the universal durability of these characterizations -- all are familiar to anyone who's worked in any kind of a midsized group, but all are made distinctive, singular by the actors and script. Comparatively little screen time is exclusively dedicated to the love story, which may be why -- after heaps of glorious, immaculately performed buildup -- the final scene feels, at least to me, like a slight letdown. I'll try to do this without spoilers (though if you've seen any Hollywood comedies of this vintage you basically know how the film ends): the ideal would be something subtler, more ambiguous: a walk out into the snow before she's fully aware of what's happening, her reaction left to our imaginations. I briefly thought we were heading there and maybe that made what did happen disappointing; it's not that I object to closing on a relatively off-color joke, but that if we can't have the ideal ending, at least we could have some form of full-on catharsis in that last exchange, but it's basically denied, and I have to admit it left me feeling more sour than I expected... but I can't deny what a lovely time I was having for almost all of the prior 90 minutes; maybe I was just bitter because I was being forced to leave such a wonderful universe in which, despite the strife of economic depression that's never absent, everything and everyone seems so warm.

Lubitsch isn't primarily thought of as a visual director (to which I say, get all of thee to Eternal Love stat), so being tripped up by the sheer emotional power of the shot midway through this film in which Sullvan's hand reaches in vain through the door to her PO box makes for quite a moment. It says so much without a word.