The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Other Jimmy Stewart Christmas Movie

The Shop Around the Corner was the first Ernst Lubitsch film I saw and as soon as the characters started interacting with each other I instantly knew this was a guy who knew how to handle dialogue in what is referred to as the so-called ‘Lubitsch Touch’. With such levels of subtly, this is the kind of movie that needs to be watched multiple times and gets better every time you do so. Often there will be a verbal joke in which I am unaware it even is a joke and it will take a few seconds to catch onto it. Most of Lubitsch’s films were set in Europe as this was where he was from. The shop of Shop Around the Corner is in Budapest, Hungary. The world this movie is set was on the brink of destruction in 1940 but there is no mention of this in the film. Just like how the film harkens back to a more peaceful time it also acts like a nostalgia portal to a time before the internet or big corporate businesses. A shop which is a physical, hands-on and above all a communal experience. The shop is a world onto its own populated by unforgettable characters.

Like Lubitsch, most of Margaret Sullavan’s movies also took place in Europe, I don’t know of the reason for this, however; a big coincidence or did she deliberately choose to star in movies with European settings? James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan aren’t remotely Hungarian but classic Hollywood movies aren’t exactly known for their realism in this regard. I also find it humorous how Klara is able to get a job by walking into a store and proving she is capable of selling items; if only it were that easy in real life!

The Shop Around the Corner is one of the prime examples of the classic “they hate each other but are really in love”; in fact, they really hate each other. Stewart’s Alfred Kralik is actually a real asshole; he’s brash and very opinionated. Likewise, Margaret Sullavan isn’t a sexy, glamorous Hollywood star; Klara Novak is a down to Earth, intellectual. As the movie progresses you so badly want these two characters to end up together to the point that it hurts. These aren’t two performers with great chemistry, these are two performers with incredible lifelike chemistry which blends the dividing line between fiction and reality. If ever there was an on-screen couple how where made for each other, this is it.

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The Mortal Storm (1940)

I Did Nazi That Coming

I try to avoid calling movies underrated or saying “Why is this not more well known?!”, otherwise, I would sound like the most malfunctioning record but as to why The Mortal Storm is not more famous goes beyond just my own personal preferences. The fact that Hollywood’s then biggest studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer would release an anti-Nazi film at a time when the US and Germany were not involved in any conflict should be a bigger deal than it is. To give some historical context, although it seems hard to believe nowadays, fascist and other Nazi-like ideas were out in the open throughout the United States during the 20’s and 30’s (heck, just look at the film Gabriel Over the White House from 1933, also released by MGM, or the public initial backlash against films with pro-interventionist sentiments such as Sergeant York or To Be Or Not To Be). Prior to the US involvement in the war, there was even uncertainty as to whether or not the US should take part in the conflict in Europe.

The Mortal Storm being overlooked is criminal. It deserves the special edition DVD treatment with documentaries behind its production. I’m sure there must be an interesting story behind the making of this film. MGM has generally been seen as a studio who played it safe, thanks in part to its conservative studio head Louis B. Mayer. So it comes as a surprise The Mortal Storm would come from this studio and they paid the price. The Mortal Storm lead to MGM films being banned in Germany. The word Nazi is never used once throughout the film, while the characters I can only assume are Jews are referred to as Non- Aryan. I wonder if this was done to prevent further controversy surrounding the film but it’s still an incredibly brave picture.

The core story is about how Nazism tore German families and friends apart due to racial and political differences. The Roths (Jewish I assume) are a happy picture postcard family one day, the next there are completely torn apart. Things go bad for the family from the moment in which it’s announced Hitler has become chancellor of Germany as the adopted, non-Jewish sons of the Roth family begin saying disturbing yet enthusiastic comments (“If peasants want to keep their cows they better have the right politics”). Likewise, the patriarch of the Roth family and the professor of the town’s local university played by Frank Morgan is treated with the highest levels of respect one day and is awarded for his contributions to the fatherland. Not long after Hitler’s rise to power his students are boycotting his class after he states that science has shown there is no difference between the blood of various races.

The Mortal Storm is a work of propaganda, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Propaganda is an art form in itself, one which tries to get an emotional reaction out of the viewer in order to convert them to one side. The Mortal Storm achieves just that. The tension during the film just builds and builds, concluding in an ending which is one huge punch to the gut.

Watching the film again in order to write this review I surprised just how engaging it was on a further viewing. There are many little touches I never noticed previously, such as when Robert Young’s character announces his engagement to Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart is the only character the room who does react with joy. I do also have to ask how Stewart, a man who would become a World War II hero and later supporter of the Vietnam war must have felt playing a character who is a pacifist.

Majority of the film is shot on sets with the use of painted backgrounds and miniatures, yet the whole thing still looks fantastic and looks more idyllic than real-world locations could. You really get a sense for this small town in the Alps. The only complaint if any I can find with the film is that opening narration which is overly bombastic.

The casting of the previously paired Shop Around the Corner stars couldn’t be more perfect. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play two friends who are forced to become lovers due to the impending circumstances – I can’t recall any other movies which portray a love story like this. Sullavan often portrayed characters who represented bravery; her voice is so fragile yet powerful at the same time. The cast isn’t the only tie the film shares with The Shop Around the Corner; both films represent a European society which was on the brink of destruction. The Mortal Storm shows how even an enlightened society can turn to authoritarianism.

The Moons Our Home (1936)

The Whole of the Moon

The Moons Our Home is one of my favourite super obscure films with only 139 users ratings on IMDB as of writing this review and a proclamation from Bill Murray as one of his favourite films (look up his appearance on the Siskel and Ebert Holiday Gift Guide 1988 in which he mentions he would like a video cassette of the film for Christmas). The Moons Our Home has only recently seen its due on DVD on the Universal Vault Series although when I watched the film I had to access it through a torrent. Not the greatest image quality but as a big fan Margaret Sullavan and a Henry Fonda enthusiast I was overjoyed to get a hold of the film and was not let down in the slightest.

What surprised me about Margaret Sullavan’s performance as movie star Cherry Chester (real name Sarah Brown) is how much she reminded me of Jean Harlow, always changing mood within a split second. Sullavan and Harlow are two actresses I didn’t think I would ever compare so it’s fascinating to see this aspect of her screen persona I didn’t even know existed. Right from the beginning of the film Cherry Chester is screaming, throwing tantrums and acting like an all-round pretentious drama queen. There is even a Hepburn-esque quality to her character with her fierce desire to be independent as well as clothing choices of a turtleneck and trousers.

Henry Fonda’s role as the explorer Antony Amberton is very much the same as we are introduced to his character escaping from a group of screaming fans which he compares to his daring exploits from the jungles of Africa to the peak of Mount Everest like a male Greta Garbo. Also, notice how all his fans are giddy women, yeah I don’t think he’s exactly Roald Amundsen. Sullavan and Fonda had previously been married, making their pairing feel more tender and genuine with moments like their histrionics in the snow being as adorable as they are funny. The Moon’s Our Home also features innovative use of split screen in which Sullavan and Fonda are given half of the screen to represent different rooms in which they move in parallel and symmetrical tandem.

The other aspect which so effectively carries The Moon’s Our Home is all the great character actor moments with the likes of Beulah Bondi, Margaret Hamilton, and Walter Brennan as the hard of hearing justice of the peace; a brief but very funny role. However, I think the best of these moments involves Charles Butterworth as Horace, the man who is chosen by Cherry/Sarah’s grandmother as her arranged husband. This is despite in his many unsuccessful marriage proposals to different women. Listen to how mundanely and awkwardly he describes how he will “lift her off her feet” while being distracted by a game of solitaire. The Moon’s Our Home is full of moments like this which are funny on different levels.

It’s already a joy to discover a film I love, even more so when it’s a film that almost no one else will watch in a million years. It gives me the sense that it’s my movie. I guess this is what hipsters must feel like listening to bands no one else has heard off.