This film directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan may well be the best film in our Christmas cinema watchlist and frankly one of the best ensemble films ever made in Hollywood. The script by Samson Raphaelson is magnificent. I challenge you to name any film with a better exposition: establishing in the first five minutes the essential character of each employee in the shop and its owner Mr. Hugo Matuschek. The script is also the tightest in the catalog: there is not a wasted scene or gesture. Raphaelson objected to one addition to the shooting script: the three times we see Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) quickly retreat when he hears Mr. Matuschek say “All I want is your honest opinion.” The acting is consistently superb, every intontation, every gesture and every eye movement embellishes the character and the story.
The tight little family of Matuschek & Co. is disrupted by a new employee, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), who antagonizes the chief clerk, Alfred Kravik (James Stewart). Kravik has begun an anonymous pen-pal correspondence with an unknown young woman and begun to fall in love with her even though he has never seen her. The shop’s owner (Frank Morgan) has also become increasingly antagonistic to Stewart, firing him for an unstated reason three weeks before Christmas and on the night he plans finally to meet the secret pen pal. We learn that Morgan’s hatred of Stewart is because Morgan has suspected Stewart of having an affair with Mrs. Matuschek, but a detective tells Morgan that the offender is actually another employee, the swarmy Mr. Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut). Fired and depressed, Stewart goes to a cafe to meet the woman, only to see that it is Klara. After attempting suicide, Morgan re-hires Stewart, who fires Vadas and the family of Matuschek & Co. is restored to balance, culminating on Christmas Eve, when Stewart reveals to Sullavan, after some humorous teasing, that he has been writing the letters and they fall into each other’s arms.
NEW YORK CONNECTION
There is no New York connection in this film, but it is an absolute Christmas essential.
Why is it such a Christmas essential? The joyous conclusion of the film takes place on Christmas Eve, with the final act of the film showing bustling business in the shop, each employee receiving a generous bonus, Mr. Matuschek being transformed from a suspicious boss with Scroogish elements to a generous father figure, every employee heading home for a lovely celebration, and Sullavan and Stewart discovering their love.
Joseph Schildkraut has the lead role in The Cheaters. Frank Morgan is best known as The Wizard of Oz. Sara Hadden appears in The Bishop’s Wife and The Great Rupert. William Edmunds, the waiter at the cafe, appears in It’s a Wonderful Life. Charles Halton (the detective) appears as the bank examiner in It’s a Wonderful LifeI.
Frank Morgan appeared in two Astaire films: The Broadway Melody of 1940 and Yolanda and the Thief. Before heading to Hollywood, Morgan appeared in The Band Wagon with Fred and Adele.
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
Two small things always stand out in this film. First, the excellent camera work. Look at the extended uncut scene when Frank Morgan yells about his disloyal employees. His raving is interrupted by a customer and a phone call but without skipping a beat he returns to his rage. The camera follows him with no cuts through the whole scene, moving to close ups and then back to a widened angle to show Stewart’s reaction. (Lubitsch uses a similar technique in several scenes throughout the film, limiting the cuts, moving the camera, tightening to an intimate shot of two people, then widening the angle to include a larger group and showing the reaction of the other employees.
The second is the quietness of this film. Unlike other films in our Christmas catalog where sweeping thematic music plays an important role (such as The Bishop’s Wife and It Happened on Fifth Avenue), there is no backing music in any scene of this film, except during the scene at the Cafe Nizza, where the music would have been played by cafe’s orchestra. With no backing music, you can instead hear quiet natural sounds, such as the wrinkling paper as Stewart unfolds the recommendation letter, puts down the pencils on his sales book, and thumps down the key to his personal locker, signifying how hard he is taking being fired. Other than the crinkling telegrams in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is there any more dramatic use of paper sounds in cinema?