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What to Watch This Month: Shop Around the Corner

Wowza!

The shop Around the Corner (1940)

Turner Classic Movies seems to have designated The Shop Around the Corner as the Xmas movie for the network. Year after year they seem to book it during the December holiday season, and this year has it scheduled for both Dec. 16 and Dec. 24. This perfect Ernst Lubitsch picture has certainly failed to transcend generations to become known as a key Xmas movie, being overshadowed by obvious oldies such as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story. The flick nevertheless is set during the holidays and is a perfectly family appropriate movie.

The Shop Around the Corner is set in Budapest, but the location is negligible and could as easily be based on a shop in any big city. Nearly all of the action occurs in said shop where our protagonists will meet, fall in instant hatred of each other and then pursue romances with their pen pals.

The appeal of the story goes beyond the romantic characters, though, as we get to know the other shop workers as well as the shop owner and his folly in purchasing mass quantities of a music box that he cannot sell.

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

Many movies over the years have used the plot device of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love, but in The Shop Around the Corner the story feels so much more natural and less predictable. It is easy to get swept into the romance and to fall in love with the character you initially detested.

If two showings of The Shop Around the Corner were not enough for viewers, TCM has also scheduled In the Good Old Summertime to air Dec. 18 and 24. This musical version of a nearly identical story is set in the opposite time of year and stars the perfectly cast Judy Garland and Van Johnson. I would probably describe it as my favorite Van Johnson movie in addition to being perfect for Garland.

I have always leaned toward the musical version as my favorite, probably because I am not the biggest fan of Jimmy Stewart when it comes to romantic roles. That is not to say he does not go beyond my expectations in the Lubitsch original, but Johnson seems to me more captivating in the later edition. Xmas Eve offers the perfect opportunity to compare them for yourself. Let me know what you think.

  • The Shop Around the Corner is set for 10 a.m. E.T. Dec. 16 and 8 p.m. Dec. 24.
  • In the Good Old Summertime is set for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 18 and 11 a.m. Dec. 24.
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Feature: What to Watch Saturday–Ninotchka

Wowza!

Ninotchka (1939)

     It is possible that still to this day I would not have seen Ninotchka had it not been for its appearance on one of those lists of the best movies ever made or movies you have to see. I bought it as part of a Greta Garbo box set some time before that list crossed my path, a box set that seven years later still has several untouched DVDs. But I am lucky/glad the circumstances led me where they did because Ninotchka truly is one of the best pictures ever made.

     This Best Picture/Writing/Actressnominated movie will play at noon ET Saturday as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. It might not have won in that oh-so-competitive year of 1939, but it has maintained a place in cinema history nevertheless.

     The tag line for the Ninotchka promotions was “Garbo laughs” because it was one of the few lighter roles she did in sound. When you start into the movie, however, you will be befuddled by that reference because as this Russian officer Ninotchka, Garbo fails to smile for the front third of the flick. The Swedish star plays the heavy who enters France to find out what is taking three bumbling Russian officials so long in selling some royal jewels. These Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) have discovered the wonders of a capitalistic society and all the luxuries it offers and are in no hurry to return home.

     Ninotchka will resist the lure of the romantic and decadent city of Paris even when she finds the kisses of Leon, played by Melvyn Douglas, delightful. It is an absurd hat that will turn her, however, and when she breaks down into laughter, we know Mother Russia’s spell has been lifted.

     Ninotchka almost seems scandalous in how heavily Garbo’s character pushes the message of the evils of capitalism and the glory of communist Russia. One can forget all that, however, when the leading lady starts living life to our own delight. Garbo is so charming as the naive adult entering such a luscious society, but she also plays the brutally stoic role perfectly. Douglas, meanwhile, could not be more charming. I feel like as an actor he largely failed to make his mark or distinguish himself from the mass of similar leading men, but he really is swoon-worthy here. I find the duo particularly enthralling in a late-night scene in Leon’s apartment after “little father” the butler has been sent home. Garbo’s growling of “again” as a request for another kiss is hilarious, endearing and unexpected all at once.

     And if you have never heard of Ninotchka and the title has you bewildered in terms of pronunciation, no worries. By the end of the picture you too will be shouting “Ninotchka, Ninotchka, Ninotchka!” and possibly asking your significant other to “salute”.

     It might be worth noting on a down point that Ninotchka was remade into the 1957 musical Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. My first disappointment with that film is that it did not actually feature the jazz standard “Silk Stockings”. Secondly, it is a tragic disappointment story and performance-wise when compared with its origin movie.

Salute!

 

Trouble in Paradise

Wowza!

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

When Trouble in Paradise sought to be re-issued three years after its 1932 release, the Hayes Office said: No way. The film that had been alright for release upon completion, if not without some minor, ignored objections, was far too scandalous for 1935 when the Production Code was in full swing. What was Director Ernst Lubitsch‘s crime with his first talking romantic comedy? Obvious sexual innuendos and a couple of thieves who get off scott free.

The subject that most comes up in discussions of the Production Code is sex. Before the code, women could have multiple partners, couples could have extramarital affairs, and the camera, dialogue or action could clearly indicate that a sexual act had just occurred. Another subject that fell under the Hayes Office’s purview, however, were criminal sorts. Individuals found as outright thieves or murders had to be punished –either by the legal system, suicide or other killing. You see this in many of the popular gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s where our beloved hoodlum James Cagney or whomever gets it in the end. I suppose the message from the powers that be was understandable enough: Do not encourage crime. But those gangster films and Trouble in Paradise with them still glorify and make sexy the criminal aspect, so the restriction seems a moot one.

It was because of the Code’s distaste for Trouble in Paradise years later, which prevented anyone seeing it again until 1968 (with it unavailable on video or DVD until 2003), that this film has gone largely forgotten despite being among Lubitsch’s greatest work and a standout in film history. Herbert Marshall is Gaston who in his Venice hotel room eagerly accepts a visit from Lily, embodied by Miriam Hopkins, a woman claiming to be a countess. A man in another room has just been robbed of a large sum of money by a man posing as a doctor and seeking to examine his tonsils. During their dinner, Lily and Gaston intermingle romantic sentiments and the woman declares that Gaston is the man who robbed the neighboring Francois Fileba (Edward Everett Horton). As you can see in the video below, this wonderfully romantic and comedic scene –flush with “the Lubitsch touch”– continues as Gaston reveals that Lily has stolen the stolen wallet from him. Also pick-pocketed from the couple by each other are Lily’s pin, Gaston’s watch and Lily’s garter –but she is not getting that back. As an audience, we instantly decide that this pairing is perfect and the two will have an adventuresome future we can all enjoy.

While in Paris some time later, Gaston and Lily plot the thievery of an expensive purse from Mlle. Colet, played by Kay Francis while she is at the opera. To their fortune, the woman puts a notice of a reward for the bag that would exceed the amount the robbers could get if they sold it. Gaston returns the purse but during his visit with Ms. Colet, manages to woo her and she hires him as her secretary, in charge of all her financial affairs. Ms. Colet is the head of a major perfume company –by inheritance– and has a board of directors running things who now takes orders from Gaston. Colet also has “boyfriends” in none other than Mr. Fileba, the tonsil victim, and “The Major” (Charlie Ruggles). With Gaston in her life, however, she loses even more interest in the two feuding beaux. Gaston has brought Lily in to help him with his new duties and the two plan to rob Mlle. Colet’s safe once more cash has been deposited there, via Gaston’s new financial orders. Lily begins to get jealous, however, when it becomes apparent Mlle. Colet wants alone time with the secretary. It is unclear how much of an affair is conducted between Gaston and Colet, although they spend late nights together.

Mr. Fileba has yet to identify Gaston as the man who robbed him, and it is quite amusing to watch this fabulous character actor try to pull from his memory whether or not he has met the man previously. Eventually, The Major says at first he mistook Gaston for a doctor, and click Mr. Fileba has solved the mystery. Realizing this, Gaston and Lily plan to get out of town fast with the little money they can take from the safe at present. Lily is home packing but Gaston is getting tied up in Colet’s embraces as they visit each others’ bedrooms in a highly suggestive but funny number of scenes. What concludes the film are questions of: will they steal the money, will Mlle. Colet find out, and with whom will Gaston choose to stay, but I will not give that away.

I mentioned the highly risqué feel to this film, so here are a few examples. The opening title reads “Trouble in”, an image of a bed appears, and then the word “Paradise” shows up. Thank you, Lubitsch for explaining this movie is about trouble in bed. Besides Gaston and Colet responding to knocks at their bedroom doors by opening the door of the other, the end includes an embrace between those two that is filmed through a mirror above the woman’s bed so we can connect their embrace with that piece of furniture. Several edits using different angles also inserts a perfect shadowed silhouette of the kissing couple on the bed itself. Bullseye.

The sexy suggestions are not why one should watch Trouble in Paradise, however, but instead the snappy Lubitsch dialogue that had me laughing out loud throughout. The film is ripe with quick banter among the characters delivered in the most sophisticated manner that makes slapstick look utterly primitive. Apparently, Lubitsch throughout his career would act out every part in a movie to show the actors how to deliver the lines and move their bodies. He had started as an actor in Germany before entering directing there and finishing out the silent era in America, coming here at the bequest of Mary Pickford. Peter Bogdanovich has said that Lubitsch managed to get performances out of his actors that they did not convey in other films, which was likely the result of this control he exerted on the actual acting.

Sources: Peter Bogdanovich introduction on Criterion Collection DVD, TCM.com

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