Of the three, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) has probably enjoyed the highest profile over the years, being one of the best films of director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Sam Raphaelson, and blessed with a high profile cast including Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan. It also helps that the film was loosely remade as You’ve Got Mail (1998), which led to a lasting trickle of interest in the original.
Set in a Budapest gift shop during the holiday season, The Shop Around the Corner follows the lives of its employees, from the marriage troubles of the shop owner (Morgan) to the anxiety of a new delivery boy. At the center of it all are Sullavan and Stewart, employees of the store who are constantly at odds with each other, but also secret pen pals who are falling in love.
If it weren’t for the Lubitsch/Raphaelson combo, it might seem silly how long it takes these characters to figure out a few clear truths. Instead, these commonplace, but deeply important and occasionally magical elements of human relationships are revealed with the light touch and subtle winking manner that gives a luster to anything these two create.
Note: viewers who are sensitive to content involving attempted suicide might want to steer clear. There is a brief scene in which more is implied than seen, but which does have a strong emotional impact.
Special features on the disc include A New Romance of Celluloid: The Miracle of Sound, a Screen Guild Players Radio Broadcast of the film's story from 1940 and a Lux Radio Theater Broadcast from 1941, and a theatrical trailer. It Happened on 5th Avenue is another solid ensemble piece, though without the star power draw of The Shop Around the Corner. This does not mean that Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charles Ruggles, Victor Moore, and Gale Storm are any less riveting in this story of making emotional connections across class, generations, and time. Moore is Aloysius T. McKeever, a man without his own home who spends his winters in the Park Avenue mansion of the obscenely wealthy Michael O’Connor (Ruggles) while the ruthless real estate magnate is at his country property. This year is different though, he picks up a few other people in need of shelter, including recently evicted veteran Jim (an energetic and charismatic DeFore), a family with a newborn, and eventually the residents of the mansion (though incognito) O’Connor, his ex-wife Mary (Harding), and his desperately lonely daughter Trudy (Storm).
These eleven drifters, be it physically, emotionally, or both, live under the moral leadership of McKeever, who seems better suited to oversee operations at the cavernous home than its oblivious owner. The community and mutual aid they develop together has special meaning in this year of isolation, with many experiencing loss of crucial resources, and feeling renewed outrage about the way the wealthiest hoard assets needed by the masses. These serious issues are approached firmly, but also with warmth, gentle humor, and a feeling of hope. That’s why while only one scene centers on Christmas, it is an essential holiday film.
The disc also includes a 1947 Lux Theater broadcast of the film’s story.
My favorite of this trio is Holiday Affair, a quietly moving and humorous drama about a widow (Janet Leigh) struggling to move past the loss of her soldier husband.
Leigh is Connie, a secret shopper who unknowingly costs salesman Steve (Robert Mitchum) his job. When she realizes her faux pas, she buys him lunch and they quickly form a bond.
Connie has been dating the attentive Carl (Wendell Corey) for a couple of years, but the arrival of Steve throws her into confusion about what she truly desires. Connie’s son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) has no doubts about what he wants: an electric train for Christmas and Steve for his new father.
Carl knows how to tend to Connie: he remembers what drink she likes and gifts her with clothing that suits her perfectly, but over the years he hasn’t come to understand her on as profoundly as Steve does with just a few meetings. He sees that Timmy has replaced his father as the head of the house and that Carl will never fit the bill because a ghost will always live with them. In a way Timmy knows that too, with the blunt, but honest perception of a child.
Mitchum is beautifully receptive in this early role. As an actor he’s a great listener, and he demonstrates that ability in his scenes with Gebert, where his careful attention to the boy is both charming and deeply moving. He’s also a nice match with Leigh; they’re low key about their attraction, but you can sense the sizzle beneath the surface.
While Steve is the catalyst for Connie to move on to a healthier life, she has a loving support system which has helped her to maintain a home and career. Graff Barnett and Esther Dale are unusually understanding and supportive as Connie’s parents. Gebert is lovely as her son: full of the desires of a young boy, but kind and considerate of his mother; he has the most charming lines in the film and he gets into the emotion of them with appealing gusto. It’s also nice that while Carl isn’t the man for Connie, he’s not made out to be a villain. He knows when to bend to her needs and he does so gracefully.
This is a particularly nice holiday film because while it deals with loss and need, it does so gently and with a light touch. It’s Christmas spirit without the tear-jerking.
Special features on the disc include a 1950 Lux Radio Theater production of the film’s story and a theatrical trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.