Watching the light, cheerful films of Ernst Lubitsch has really driven home one thing: Romantic comedies lost their way and I’m not entirely sure why.
Modern romantic comedies are often insipid pieces of fluff. They prefer base-level characters and narratives that err on the side of manipulative and sappy. What’s frustrating is that it doesn’t have to be like this. The romantic comedies by directors like Lubitsch or Capra or even Howard Hawks aren’t these deep character studies or films that deliver impactful treatises on the human condition. They’re light and fun and make you feel good.
So what’s missing? What makes a light and fluffy comedy like Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” (which Nora Ephron remade as “You’ve Got Mail”) or “Ninotchka” better than any modern equivalent? That’s the Lubitsch Touch, I guess. It’s becoming ever so much clearer why Lubitsch was so revered (the great Billy Wilder himself had a sign in his office that said “How would Lubitsch do it?”) and influential, and it’s simply because he had something and infused into his films something that’s intangible. Plenty of people have come close to replicating what he did, but it was still just that: A replication.
There’s not a huge gap between “The Shop Around the Corner” and the previous two films of Lubitsch’s that I’ve dug into. At its core, “Shop” is still a “him versus her” romantic comedy, but this one kind of takes the opposite approach that “Ninotchka” adopted. Instead of the two falling in love relatively quickly, it’s not until the very end that we see our romantic foils realize they love each other.
Scratch that. They realize they love each other, they just don’t realize they love each other.
You see, Klara (the adorable Margaret Sullivan) and Alfred (Jimmy Stewart) kind of hate each other. Their relationship is straight up antagonistic and borderline hostile, at the very least. They don’t get along and haven’t since the day they met when Klara came looking for a job at the shop where Alfred runs the floor. What neither knows, however, is that they’ve been corresponding anonymously via written letters the whole time, slowly falling in love thanks to the intellectual and romantic language they aim at each other.
Again, that sort of antagonism-leads-to-romance backbone can be found in countless other films of this sort. But it’s Lubitsch’s timing, his ability to frame the romance and also his perfect use of Sullivan and Stewart that really makes it stand out.
Stewart is, of course, great here. He’s always great. I can’t think of a single performance of his that could be described as bad. This isn’t one of his top tier films, but he delivers what you want and expect out of him in a film like this. It’s Sullivan, though, who is the film’s MVP. She’s adorable, even when she’s being cold and/or rude toward Stewart. This is the first film of hers I’ve seen (that I’m aware of, at least) and I kind of want to go out and find all of her notable work now because she’s just that fun and cute to watch here.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this one of the best romantic comedies ever made, but its affability and charm is undeniable. It’s certainly not hard to see how or why others would want to go after what Lubitsch captured here.
Next week, I’ll continue my look at the works of Lubitsch with a review of “To Be or Not to Be,” followed by “Heaven Can Wait.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On …” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.