Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the swinging-est night spot for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. Welcome to our first edition of the postseason. I’m betting you have more time to stop in now that the Cubs are done. Be sure to drown your sorrows about that here. Also, bring your own beverage. The hostess will seat you now.
BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.
The Cubs season is over. You probably knew that already. They won four of their last five games if you want to end with something positive. Yeah, I’m grasping at straws. But if you want to talk about the end of the Cubs season or the upcoming playoffs, you’re free to do so here.
Last week I asked you who should win the National League Most Valuable Player Award and you didn’t have an overwhelming favorite either. However, with 37% of the vote, the winner of the poll was the Phillies’ Bryce Harper. The Nationals’ Juan Soto was in second place with 29% and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford was third with 17%. Trea Turner and Fernando Tatis Jr. finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
Here’s the part where I talk about jazz and movies. You’re free to skip ahead to the baseball question if you want. You won’t hurt my feelings.
Tonight’s jazz track is a way to get you into the spirit of October and the long countdown to Halloween. It’s from Louis Armstrong, the most important figure in the early history of jazz and maybe in all of jazz, early or not. Whomever made this video set it to an early Mickey Mouse cartoon, so you can enjoy that as well.
Here is “Spooks” by Louis Armstrong.
Last time I asked you which Hollywood romantic comedy you wanted me to write about and the winner was director Ernst Lubitsch and his 1940 classic, The Shop Around the Corner, starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. That surprised me as it was the oldest of the three choices and the only one shot in black and white. But at least among those of you who voted, you made your choice for the Golden Age of Hollywood. That tells me that I’m not wasting my time talking to some of you about very old films.
Watching The Shop Around the Corner again, I can’t help but to notice how the basic set up of the film is so similar to the format of the modern situation comedy—and in particular, of Cheers. It’s set in a workplace and has a romance between two bickering co-workers at the center, but the real heart of the film is the surrogate family of the people who work together. Cheers was inspired, in part, by the romantic comedies of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, but Stewart and Sullavan would have worked just as well. You can even see a lot of Sullavan’s portrayal of Klara Novak in Shelley Long’s portrayal of Diane Chambers. Miss Novak is a shop clerk who is a bit full of herself and looks down upon some of her coworkers, especially Stewart’s Alfred Kralik, whom she constantly bickers with. That’s where the Cheers comparison ends, as Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Kralik is literate and sensitive, unlike Ted Danson’s Sam Malone.
Lubitsch paints a loving portrait of Matuschek and Company, a small leather goods store in Budapest full of kindly people whom you’d want to get to know. In that way, the film reads like a pilot episode of a TV show. Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) is a kindly shop owner who treats his employees like a firm-but-fair father. Mr. Kralik (Stewart) is his best and longest-serving employee. He trusts Mr. Kralik’s judgement and considers him a surrogate son, having him over for dinner at his house on many occasions. Then there is the older, kindly family man, Mr. Pirovitch, played by Felix Bressart. He dispenses life wisdom to Mr. Kralik and is the first to step in when there are problems between employees. Joseph Schildkraut plays Mr. Vadas, a foppish dandy who is obsequious to the boss but likes to show off his suspicious wealth to his co-workers. Pepi (William Tracy) is an errand boy whose annoying ambition is mitigated by how hard he works and how dedicated he is to the shop. Finally, there are two more older women store clerks who don’t have much to do, but if this were the pilot episode of a sitcom, we’d all be expecting them to get developed further in later episodes.
This film was personal to director Ernst Lubitsch, as he based it on the tailor’s shop that his Russian immigrant father ran in Berlin while he was growing up. The 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie, which The Shop Around the Corner is based on, spoke to him because of how it reminded him of the people he knew when he was a child. But of course, Lubitsch can’t have any light without darkness, and boy, does he add some darkness to the middle of the film.
Into this happy world walks Klara Novak (Sullavan), an out-of-work store clerk who is desperate for a job. She walks into Matuschek and Company and Alfred Kralik (Stewart) mistakes her for a customer. He puts on a sales job about their leather goods. Miss Novak maneuvers him into bragging that things at the store are so good that they will probably have to hire a new sales clerk. When Miss Novak reveals that she’s actually here looking for a job, Mr. Kralik gets very annoyed at her and tells her, as politely as he can, that there are no openings. He gets even more annoyed when Miss Novak manages to sell a sample of a music box cigarette case that Mr. Matuschek had wanted to carry in stock but that Kralik had earlier dismissed as worthless junk that wouldn’t sell. This example of her salesmanship gets Novak hired by Matuschek. But Kralik would be proven correct in the end as the musical cigarette boxes don’t sell.
(Spoilers for an 81-year-old movie to follow) While Kralik and Novak continue to bicker at work, we learn that each of them have responded to a lonely-hearts ad in the newspaper and are smitten with their new anonymous pen pal. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going—they’re both responding to each other. Miss Novak takes special pride in putting down Mr. Kralik by comparing him unfavorably to her anonymous boyfriend, completely unaware that they’re the same person.
Finally the two pen pals agree to meet at a local café, but on the night that they had arranged, a surprisingly irritated Mr. Matuschek decides that everyone has to work late on the Christmas display for the front window. Both Kralik and Novak are upset that they won’t be able to make their rendezvous. But while Mr. Kralik accepts his fate with sad resignation, Miss Novak tries to butter up Mr. Kralik, in order to ask him to cover for her so she can meet her secret pen pal. This just makes Mr. Kralik even angrier.
I said that Lubitsch doesn’t ever give the light without the darkness, and here’s where it gets dark. As the store gets ready to close, Mr. Matuschek gets a phone call. After hanging up, he calls Mr. Kralik into his office and politely tells him that he’d best find work elsewhere. Everyone in the shop is devastated that the well-liked Mr. Kralik was fired. Even Miss Novak expresses her sympathy.
After that, Mr. Matuschek gets another phone call and sends everyone home for the evening. Miss Novak tears out the shop as fast as she can to get to the café to meet her date.
We then find out why Mr. Matuschek is acting so oddly. He’s hired a private detective to check on his wife, whom he suspects has been cheating on him with Mr. Kralik. That’s why Matsuschek fired him. But the detective tells Matuschek that while his wife has been fooling around behind his back, it was not with Mr. Kralik but rather with the foppish Mr. Vadas. (That explains where he’s getting all his money for jewelry, fine clothes and taxis to work.) Mr. Matuschek, distraught over his wife’s infidelity and wracked with guilt for firing Mr. Kralik unjustly, tries to blow his own brains out. Only the timely arrival of Pepi, the errand boy, keeps the bullet from killing him. Instead, we only see a light getting shot out.
Like I said, that got dark in a hurry. You don’t often see that in a romantic comedy.
This leads to the best and most famous scene in the film. Mr. Kralik, worried about how his secret pen pal might look and about losing his job, asks the kindly Mr. Pirovitch to deliver his apologies for not making the date. Pirovitch checks her out for him and tells Kralich that she’s lovely and looks like Miss Novak. That’s OK with Kralik, as it’s her personality and not her looks that he dislikes. But then Pirovitch tells Kralik:
“Well, if you don’t like Miss Novak, I can tell you right now you won’t like this girl.”
“Because it is Miss Novak.”
This catches Kralik off-guard, as he can’t reconcile the witty and intelligent woman with whom he’s been corresponding with the snotty co-worker he’s constantly bickering with. Eventually, he decides that maybe he’s misjudged Klara and goes in to see her, but without revealing that he’s the man she’s fallen in love with from his letters.
But Mr. Kralik’s appearance only angers Miss Novak, who feels like he’s going to ruin her big date. She gets snippy with him and tells Mr. Kralik to leave. He sticks with her for a while, arguing that maybe she doesn’t know the real him.
That’s when Miss Novak gives it to Mr. Kralik with both barrels:
“I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter . . . which doesn’t work.”
The two continue to bicker for a while, but Mr. Kralik finally gives up trying to make peace with Miss Novak when she calls him “an insignificant little clerk.” That is, of course, exactly who she is as well.
Meanwhile, Matuschek is in the hospital after his suicide attempt, and Pepi has summoned Mr. Kralik to his room. Mr. Matuschek apologizes for his behavior and begs Kralik to come back to work for him. Kralik forgives Matuschek and in turn, Matuschek makes Kralik the new manager with instructions to “quietly” fire Mr. Vadas. Pepi also talks his way into a promotion to store clerk.
That’s where Kralik disobeys Matuschek, because the firing of Vadas becomes a very messy affair. Kralik then goes to visit Miss Novak, who has reported in to work sick with heartache that her anonymous boyfriend stood her up.
At this point, Mr. Kralik has decided that Miss Novak really is someone worth pursuing, but not before he has a lot of fun with her by taunting her over the lover she thinks she’s never met.
Mr. Kralik gets the entire rest of the team together and decides that the best Christmas gift that the workers could get their boss is to have the biggest Christmas sales figures ever. Mr. Matuschek returns from the hospital for the celebration and gives every employee a big Christmas bonus. Realizing that he’s alone for the holiday, he asks every employee to join him for dinner, but they all have plans except for young Rudy, the new errand boy whom he has just met. In the spirit of Christmas, Rudy and Mr. Matuschek go to a fancy dinner together and the boss realizes that his true family are the employees who care about him.
Finally, that leaves Mr. Kralik and Miss Novak together in the shop alone after closing. Miss Novak is convinced her anonymous pen pal is going to propose marriage to her on Christmas. Mr. Kralik replies that he knows she will get engaged over Christmas. When asked how he knows, Kralik tells her that he’s met her secret paramour. He then proceeds to describe him as an ugly, unemployed man with a funny last name. As Klara begins to despair that the man she’s fallen in love with might not be all she thought he was, Kralik reveals the truth.
Miss Novak responds by saying “Psychologically, I’m very confused. But personally, I don’t feel bad at all.” After a few apologies for earlier behavior, they kiss and presumably they all lived happily ever after.
As far as I can tell, “The Lubitsch Touch” was just a marketing term dreamed up by the studios to tell audiences that they’ll love a movie directed by Ernst Lubitsch. But there are some things about The Shop Around the Corner that make it distinctively a Lubitsch film. The first is the witty dialogue that makes mundane conversations seem brighter. The second is the way that his films mix the light and the dark; the frivolous with the grave. Maybe The Shop Around the Corner doesn’t combine absurdity with horror like To Be or Not to Be did (which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago), but most traditional romantic comedies don’t delve into sub-plots dealing with attempted suicide. Marital infidelity was something of a personal thing for Lubitsch, who had a failed marriage due to an unfaithful wife. He returned to infidelity several times in his films, either to deal with his own demons or just because it was something he was familiar with.
The film shows off its stage roots through the way that Lubitsch shot it. Most of the scenes take place in the shop, which gives an impression of a self-enclosed world. (The scene in the café is shot brilliantly, however.) Again, I keep coming back to a late-Twentieth Century three-camera sitcom which similarly limited the number of stages employed.
The Shop Around the Corner was the third film that Sullavan and Stewart made together. Any romantic comedy relies on the chemistry between the two leads and certainly the two of them knew how to get the best work out of each other. Sullavan had been briefly married to Stewart’s close friend Henry Fonda, and they all were close friends off the screen as well. Felix Bressart, a fellow German Jew who fled the Nazis, was a regular character actor in Lubitsch’s films who always did strong work. Frank Morgan, playing the kindly Mr. Matuschek, was just coming off playing a surprisingly similar character as the titular Wizard in The Wizard of Oz.
Many consider The Shop Around the Corner as Lubitsch’s best work. It’s certainly his most personal. If you’re a fan of Jimmy Stewart or romantic comedies, you’ll probably like The Shop Around the Corner. And if you’re a fan of Cheers, you’ll probably like it too.
Here’s the terrific scene where Novak and Kralik meet at the café for the first time. You’ll get a good sense of the banter between the two leads and the strong and effective staging of the scene. Remember, Stewart’s Mr. Kralik knows that they’ve been corresponding anonymously and Sullavan’s Miss Novak doesn’t.
On Wednesday, I’m going to offer my thoughts on You’ve Got Mail, the 1998 remake of The Shop Around the Corner starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and directed by Nora Ephron. So you’re going to get a bonus essay. Watch the film before then if you want to offer your thoughts.
Welcome back to everyone who skips the jazz and movies. The regular season is over and that means the playoffs are upon us. Unlike five of the previous six seasons, the Cubs are not playing this year. I know we’re all upset about that, but just imagine telling 1997 you that you were upset that the Cubs didn’t make the playoffs after making it five of the previous six season, including winning one World Series. Or even 2012 you.
So today I’m going to ask you who is going to be the American League World Series participant. The AL Wild Card game is tonight (or tomorrow, depending on where you are) and the Yankees are traveling to Fenway Park for a one-game, winner-take-all showdown with the Red Sox. Assuming the game ends before Thursday (it’s a playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox. They may still be in the seventh inning on Thursday morning) the winner of the game will take on the Tampa Bay Rays in a best-of-five AL Division Series. Meanwhile, the White Sox and Astros will go at it in the other ALDS.
So who is going to come out on top? You can tell everyone who you want to win in the comments below, but for now I’m asking you who will win. Make your picks now.
Who will be the AL pennant winner this year?
This poll is closed
Boston Red Sox
Chicago White Sox
New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays
Thanks so much for stopping by. We’ll have someone get your car for you. We’ll be back tomorrow with another edition of BCB After Dark. I hope to see you then.