There remains something intriguingly tremulous and hesitant about Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 piece The Shop Around the Corner, this year's festive treat re-release from the BFI. In a Budapest department store where the fittings and newspapers are in Magyar but everybody speaks fluent English, we find Jimmy Stewart - his voice cracking as ever, his screen persona not yet set in stone - employed as a lovelorn clerk exchanging letters with the thus far anonymous girl of his dreams, oblivious to the fact she is in fact his new colleague Klara (Margaret Sullavan), with whom he's already had several run-ins in person.
The tremulousness perhaps filters down from the leading man: Stewart's Kralik is a gentle, upstanding, yet mildly bland romantic hero - the kind of role the actor might well have found himself stuck with for life had he been handed average contract-player material around this particular moment in his career. He speaks the lines with no great feeling for what makes them funny, and though Kralik assumes the reins in the central relationship - he learns Klara's his secret Santa long before she does - for much of the film, the character remains a doleful, melancholy presence, a man very much at the mercy of market forces.
Don't go expecting another His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story (a better showcase for Stewart the comedian), far frothier confections from the same year; this one was made to sit heavier on the stomach, and you're struck by how grown-up - how thoroughly serious - its two lovers are. What they're involved in, however, is exactly the sort of (contrived) mistaken identity plot that would have all or most of its charm, elegance, its innocence beaten out of it today - you'd only need to look at the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan remake You've Got Mail to see that, or any of the dozen or so romcoms since that that haven't cared to acknowledge their inspiration.
These latter films have generally treated their backdrops - the coffee shops, flower shops and pet shops - as (pardon the pun) window-dressing. Lubitsch, on the other hand - as you'd expect of any studio director who went to the trouble and expense of getting these sets built - displays a genuine interest in the department store as a living, breathing working environment, an ideal of both customer service and romantic comportment (by the end, Kralik is literally pulling his garters up), albeit one frequently undermined by office politics and personality clashes. Consider the poignancy directed into Kralik's firing - his handing over of his clerk's notebook and pencils afforded the same cosmic seriousness as all those later scenes in police procedurals where good detectives are obliged to part with their gun and shield - or indeed that of the insert in which Klara, for once, fails to find a billet doux in her postbox.
All this is not to say The Shop Around the Corner isn't funny, but its humour is all the more memorable for being so damn bittersweet, coming as it does in dispatches, like the deft cutaways to the flunky who disappears upstairs whenever his boss, the fearsome Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan, a year after Oz), demands an honest opinion of his employees. Lubitsch preserves the original setting of Nikolaus Laszlo's play enough so that it - ahem - registers, but the film wears its (Eastern) Europeanness lightly, in the form of a beardy psychoanalyist, drafted in for one scene, and a couple of instances of good Jewish humour, such as the employee worried he'll have to pay a call-out charge to the doctor on the one day of the year his hypochondriac wife doesn't feel unwell. In truth, everyone's nerves are on edge here, anyhow. To mark the Yuletide setting, there's a decorated tree in the store window and the promise of more snow to come, but the threat of personal and professional redundancy lingers over these characters - making it an inspired revival at the present moment - and they're all a hair's breadth away from a breakdown or a fainting fit. (Unlike in screwball, the film sees absolutely nothing funny in this.)
I think there's something else in the air beyond the scent of pine needles. After a spell in the forces, Stewart would end WW2 making It's a Wonderful Life and those bleak Hitchcock and Anthony Mann vehicles that similarly saw the depths to which humanity can sometimes sink. The Shop Around the Corner was clearly intended as propaganda for love and Christmas, not American military involvement in a mounting global conflict. Yet in its portrait of a small community whose individuals are eminently worth saving, whose values are worth buying into, is it not possible to glimpse something else around the corner for Budapest, and the Klaras and Kraliks of this world - something far worse than two star-crossed lovers not realising their destiny, something that would knock all the jollity and romance out of Eastern Europe as a movie location until Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy took up temporary residence there in Before Sunrise some half a century later?
The Shop Around the Corner returns to selected cinemas today.