It is the dead of winter, and a weary everyman played by Jimmy Stewart has hit rock bottom. A fateful mix-up seems to have ruined his career. He walks the streets a beaten man, the embodiment of dreams deferred. But then comes a twist: A benefactor unexpectedly gives him a second chance. His tortuous path ultimately leads to a happy ending, and he finds love and redemption on Christmas Eve. Stewart's performance is wonderful, as is the movie: Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner. Forget Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a pretty good film turned sacred obligation. Anyone looking to escape this year's ritual viewing (NBC, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. EST) would do well to seek out Jimmy Stewart's other, better Christmas movie.
Both movies follow the lives of ordinary folk, working in crummy jobs with few prospects. Both were the creation of legendary Hollywood auteurs working at their peak. And both star Jimmy Stewart. But only one has entered the popular imagination. The vagaries of copyright law conferred a double-edged immortality on It's a Wonderful Life. A clerical error left it in the public domain for two decades, and wall-to-wall airings have burdened the film with more cultural weight than it can possibly carry—it's more institution than movie now. By contrast, The Shop Around the Corner languishes in near-obscurity, loved by critics and cinephiles but unknown to most. The closest it's come to rediscovery was when Nora Ephron remade it as You've Got Mail, an indignity that no film should have to suffer.
Stewart plays Alfred Kralik, a no-nonsense clerk in a Budapest gift shop. He works with a colorful roster of co-workers: a meek yes man, an oily sycophant, a smart-alecky office boy, all presided over by the fatherly but exacting Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Into this peculiar ecosystem walks Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), desperately seeking a job. Matuschek hires her, and she and Alfred quickly become rivals. What the bickering pair don't realize is that they already know each other: It turns out that sober Alfred and spunky Klara have been conducting an anonymous love affair via correspondence—they are soul mates on paper.
As with all romantic comedies, it's not the getting-together but the getting-there that matters. Samson Raphaelson's script (based on a play by Nikolaus Laszlo) contrives a particularly arduous route. Halfway through the movie, Alfred receives a double blow. Matuschek fires him, wrongly suspecting him of having an affair with his wife. Alfred is slated to meet his unknown lover for the first time later that night. Loath to show up at his date an unemployed man, he skips the rendezvous—but not before going to the appointed cafe to sneak a peek through the window. Then, the second blow: Sitting at the table where his beloved should be is the despised Klara. Realizing fate's cruel trick, Alfred walks away from the restaurant dejected. But the camera doesn't follow him. After a few seconds, Alfred steps back into the shot and peeks through the window again. "Maybe she's not so bad," you can see him thinking.
A movie about lives stuck firmly in the mundane, The Shop Around the Corner has a melancholy undercurrent that deepens its love story. "Just a lovely, average girl … That's all I want," Alfred tells a friend early on. His low expectations get at the movie's sadness. Alfred's peers lead lives of lingering disappointment and tiny consolations. The same is true of Alfred and Klara, but their love letters puncture their resignation and allow them to dream. Talking to Alfred about her epistolary lover, Klara boasts, "It's difficult to explain a man like him to a man like you"—oblivious that her perfect man on the page is her loathsome adversary in the flesh.
The collision of the ideal and the real is Lubitsch's theme: Can love's fulfillment possibly match the exalted fancies it inspires? When Alfred finds out his pen pal's true identity, he confronts both disappointment and fear. His mystery woman turns out to be one he knew all along. And now he has to introduce himself—earnest, reliable Alfred Kralik—to a woman who has conjured up an impossible ideal in his place. When he finally reveals himself to Klara, the most poignant moment isn't the confession of love but the betrayal of anxiety. "Are you disappointed?" he asks her, a question that recalls the heartbreaking ending of Chaplin's City Lights, when the Little Tramp shows his face for the first time to the once-blind woman he loves.
The "Lubitsch touch" was the catchall for the alchemy of wit, sophistication, and playfulness that defined the German-born director's cinema. In movies like Trouble in Paradise and Ninotchka, Lubitsch achieved the apotheosis of his style, a delicate balancing act of grown-up and gossamer. But The Shop Around the Corner is resolutely earthbound; it may take place in Europe, but it's been stripped of Continental glamour. Lubitsch went so far as to have Sullavan wear a $1.98 dress to look the part. (Of course, she still looks ravishing.) Playing out to the rhythm of opening and closing doors—a nice metaphor for the second chances and surprises that abound—the narrative glides along gracefully, giving the screwball premise a warm, unhurried treatment.
Capra's principle flaw was his distrust of his audience's intelligence (Pauline Kael called It's a Wonderful Life "patronizing"). He couldn't resist spoon-feeding his morals, a condescension that manifested itself in the irredeemable corniness and enthusiasm for demagoguery in his films. The difference between the two Christmas movies can be gleaned in their respective titles. Despite its tantalizing forays into darkness, It's a Wonderful Life lives up to its name, slapping the mother of all Hollywood redemptions onto an ostensible tribute to small-town authenticity. By contrast, The Shop Around the Corner never strays far from the quotidian. Unlike George Bailey, Alfred never dreams big—he just wants a lovely, average girl.
And he gets her. Drunk on fantasy, Lubitsch's lovers are forced to open their eyes to reality. What they find is that the opposite of illusion need not be disillusionment. The movie's climax, a tangle of epiphanies and surrenders on a snowy Christmas Eve, approaches the transcendent. It's one of the most satisfying and well-earned happy endings in movies.