My Favorite Christmas Movies: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

A promotional still first featured in National Board of Review Magazine (Library of Congress).

Now that Thanksgiving is over and all of the weird Thanksgiving obsessives have had their time to worship turkey and awkward family chatter, I am finally free to listen to Christmas music and talk about Christmas incessantly without a Thanksgiving obsessive responding, “Heavens to Betsy, not before Thanksgiving!” I, like the rest of the Christmas-celebrating world, recognize the Christmas season as beginning on November 1st, and it seems that Thanksgiving obsessives live solely to harsh my mellow. All of this is to say that my tree was up on November 1st (though, due to a light snafu, not decorated for a few more days), the only music playing in my car is Christmas music, and the only cinematic viewing has been of the Christmas classics variety.

I am far from a film snob. I took two film classes in college, and while I enjoyed the movies, my attempts to engage in the class discussions were disastrous. To put it simply, I was an English major. I wanted to talk about characters, plot, and themes. I had no interest in shadows, cinematography, or directorial choices. To this day, I think it would be a stretch to say that I have good taste in movies, especially given the fact that my attention span for movies is minimal. Despite all this, however, I feel confident in saying that the general population’s taste in Christmas movies is abhorrent. By “general population,” I am referring to those who call into Chicago’s 93.9 WLIT, LITE FM when the morning show hosts ask people to call in and tell them what their favorite Christmas movies are. You may claim that this is not representative of the general population, but it’s the best I’ve got. At any rate, these ardent radio listeners all say the same things: Elf (2003). A Christmas Story (1983). Home Alone (1990). If they consider themselves really edgy, Die Hard (1988). Are these good movies? Sure, why not. Elf is overrated but cute, A Christmas Story is good but I’ve seen it a million times and feel no need to ever see it again, I saw Home Alone once when I was about six and don’t remember much about it, and I’ve never seen Die Hard. That said, none of them are bad movies, probably. But are they the best Christmas movies ever? Should they be your favorites? No and no.

The best Christmas movie is, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). That said, I do not have great taste in movies (as established), so it is not my favorite. My favorite is another Jimmy Stewart classic, The Shop Around the Corner (1940). This masterpiece, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, tells the story of Alfred Kralik (Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), two shop employees in Budapest who hate each other but are, unknowingly, each other’s beloved penpals. Not to spoil anything, but they fall in love. If this sounds familiar, yes, You’ve Got Mail (1998) is a (less Christmassy) remake.

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.

I don’t know that there’s a whole lot to parse about this movie thematically speaking, but boy do I love it. For one: enemies to lovers! A wonderful trope that is rarely done well. But when it is done well, it’s a masterpiece (see: Pride and Prejudice and Much Ado About Nothing). So much of a masterpiece, in fact, that I have come to the conclusion that I could only ever fall in love with my worst enemy while we were in a marriage of convenience. But I digress.

Besides having a truly sweet love story, The Shop Around the Corner also features hilarious jokes about working retail that are still painfully accurate eighty years later, a true feeling of being in Budapest despite the fact that it was filmed on a studio stage outside Los Angeles, and themes of found family. It is simultaneously a small story that seems to exist in a magical world and a story that could happen to anyone anywhere. Everyone can relate to it the world over, and yet there’s something to its atmosphere that is otherworldly. Perhaps it’s that touch of old Hollywood that simply doesn’t exist in movies anymore, if only because movies are no longer as new and exciting as they once were. In the end, I think Ernst Lubitsch described it best: “It’s not a big picture, just a quiet little story that seemed to have some charm.” In that sense, The Shop Around the Corner is the perfect Christmas movie. Sure, huge productions like White Christmas (1954) are enjoyable and have their place, but the magic of the Christmas season ultimately rests in the small things: time with family (blood-related or otherwise) and friends, traditions, and that special feeling of peace that just doesn’t exist at any other time of year. The Shop Around the Corner encapsulates all of that, and tells a lovely, funny story to boot. And yet, people say that Elf is their favorite Christmas movie. Pshaw.

So, The Shop Around the Corner: a sweet, genuinely very funny Christmas movie that perfectly captures the spirit of Christmas. And if you’ve ever worked retail, you’ll enjoy it just a bit more.

Cat mom, librarian, and writer in Chicago.

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