Twelve Days of Completely Secular Yuletide: A temporary escape into The Shop Around the Corner

The James Stewart film that’s traditionally played around the holidays is It’s A Wonderful Life, but for those who aren’t like the other holiday movie watchers, The Shop Around The Corner is the more sophisticated choice. It’s a charming black and white romcom — there’s laughter, tension and yearning, and it has earned its spot as a cinema classic.

The movie isn’t necessarily about Christmas. It takes place around the holidays, shows the chaos of Christmas shopping and has a finale set on Christmas Eve, but the holidays are more of a backdrop to the main storyline. These light touches of holiday cheer are best suited to early December or early January, when just a little bit of yuletide is what you’re after.

The film is directed by Ernest Lubitsch, and was released in 1940. Based on that date, many may make the assumption that this movie is only entertaining to film snobs and senior citizens, but they couldn’t be more wrong. If given a chance, the film promises to win over the heart of just about anyone. They even made a modern remake with Tom Hanks, but it doesn’t come close to comparing to the original.

It’s set in 1930s Budapest. The titular shop is a pleasant little store called Matuschek and Company, a locally owned business catered to slow-shoppers and eco-friends. What exactly this shop sells, I’m not sure — they have wallets, belts and bags, but also music boxes. I’ve seen it referred to as a gift shop, as well as a leather goods store and an odds-and-ends shop. Maybe it’s meant to be left up to interpretation.

We start with Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) getting a letter from his mystery pen pal. He’s already smitten with how intelligent and sensitive she is, and tells his co worker Pirovitch about his cultured new friend, who he found through a newspaper ad. We also meet the other coworkers, including slimy, two-faced Ferencz Vadas, sassy icon Pepi and the boss, Mr. Matuschek.

That morning, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) enters the store looking for a job, and utilizes the show-don’t-tell strategy to win a position as a sales girl by cleverly selling a cigarette box as a candy box to a skeptical customer. Alfred and Klara bicker a lot, but we soon find out that Klara is the mystery pen pal. Alfred finds out before she does, and whether or not you’re into the enemies-to-lovers trope, the plot gets quite interesting here.

There’s also a plot line about Mr. Matuschek’s cheating wife and the dramatic private detective investigation to find the identity of her secret lover, who turns out to be one of Matuschek’s employees — although he makes a big mistake concerning which one.

In the glorious finale, the store has record Christmas sales, and Klara finds out it was Alfred who was wooing her through the mailbox.

Not all romcoms manage to balance the romance and the comedy without getting too cheap or sappy, but Lubitsch masterfully crafts an elegant story, showcasing one of the best examples of the hailed “Lubitsch touch.” The humor is the rare kind that evokes an actual laugh, not just a smile and exhale — a laugh that requires you to pause the movie so you can catch your breath. After first term, which was no laughing matter, feeling that spark of joy again was much needed.

There’s an abundance of chemistry between Klara and Alfred, building up tension before the unexpected lovers come together. You can even use some of the material for the scenarios you make up about your failed situationship! Personally, comparing my boyfriend-who’s-not-my-boyfriend to James Stewart definitely put things into perspective.

It may be rather obscure among the general population, but The Shop Around the Corner is one of the most heartwarming, memorable films I’ve ever seen (and Time magazine agrees with me). Despite being set during the Great Depression, it’s fantastical. It looks at the importance of honesty, kindness and love, but in a way that’s subtle and engaging, not cliché or overdone. If you want a movie that will make you feel the way you did the first time you tried an ice cream cake, this one is definitely the way to go.