Thursday, 26 January 2012

all Allen ain't

What a marvel is The Shop Around The Corner (d. Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)! Found a copy of this classic (Korean, what's more) in yet another recently opened local charity shop, for just a quid. The young James Stewart is the perfect foil for Margaret Sullavan (1911-60), that unique and highly original performer, who made a successful if relatively brief career on both stage and screen. Sullavan is now largely forgotten, except by older film fans: she projected a gutsy yet vulnerable, breezy but endearing charm. Her private life however, like that of many another Hollywood star away from the unreal celluloid world, seems to have been genuinely troubled – three marriages, ill-health, increasing deafness and death by her own hand… Her admirer Louise Brooks, another complex character and terrific actress, praised "that wonderful voice of hers – strange, fey, mysterious – like a voice singing in the snow."

Sullavan and Stewart are quite wonderful together, and the supporting cast, especially Frank Morgan as the shop owner, are also superb. This sublimely bitter-sweet – not quite screwball, if splendidly quickfire – comedy now seems perhaps closer to Renoir than Hawks or Preston Sturges, but with delightful hints of all three. Lubitsch directed with what was at the time labelled his 'touch' – a style full of feeling, European wit and elegance and just a dash of cynicism.

My favourite Lubitsch film, if anything even more enjoyable, remains the hilarious To Be Or Not To Be (1942), starring the lovely and equally ill-fated Carole Lombard. This, for whatever devious reasons of copyright or studio archival manoeuvres, seems currently unavailable. But maybe I'll be lucky enough to truffle out a Korean copy of this one too, and in some other inviting shop around the corner?

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