The Custom of the Country*

Stewart and Sullavan

Recently I watched Ernst Lubitsch’s charming romance, The Shop around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Made in 1940. In this time of endless remakes, the latest and most successful iteration of which was You’ve Got Mail.

The storyline has had several revisits of less successful nature: a guy and a gal begin corresponding, while, unknown to either, they are encountering each other daily. Their correspondent selves are busy falling in love as they come to  dislike each other in person.

Lubitsch actually got the idea from a German play, but he decided to set it in Hungary, “just around the corner in Andrassy Street—on Balta Street, in Budapest.” Not knowing, of course, while they were making the film that those streets in Budapest were about to become toast.

The writing is terrific. Lubitsch by 1939-40 had come full circle, from making stories about larger-than-life glamorous characters to focusing in on everyday people, in this case, workers in Matuchek’s luggage shop,especially a clerk named Mr. Kralik and a new shopgirl named Miss Novak.

Lubitsch had started life as a teenager laboring in his father’s shop in Berlin just after WW I. The production people gifted Lubitsch with a wonderfully exact set that looks exactly like an old-world street in Hungary, right down to Hungarian signs, and money.

Berlin Friedrichstrasse

The characterizations are as exquisite as the writing: exactly the right details illuminate three dimensional people in all their ever-changing emotions. The mise-en-scène is a blend of American thirties custom and old-world European.

At one point, James Stewart and his good friend Pirovitch (played with wistful brilliance by Felix Bressart) peek inside a coffee shop, where the letter writers are supposed to meet for the first time. Stewart, down in the dumps, can’t bear to look, and asks Pirovitch to report what she’s doing. “She has her coffee. She’s dunking!”

coffee shop

They look at each other, then each assures the other that it’s all right to dunk!

Unless I’m totally off, that is a piece of Americana that is pretty much forgotten—both the dunking of plain doughnuts into coffee as a part of morning or evening ritual, and the fact that there was once a question of etiquette about it.

1939 world's fair NYPublic Library image

Emily Post, until she died in 1960, became the arbiter of etiquette in the US, her books shifting the focus from the intricacies of eating with the high and mighty to everyday questions of civilized life for ordinary persons. She captivated her audience by observing that if you picked up the wrong fork, there was a possibility that your hostess was wrong in having too many forks. By the time she died, her etiquette book was in its tenth edition, and 89th printing.

About the Great Doughnut Question, Emily Post said, “Any place that would have doughnuts would be like a picnic, where, short of smearing wet doughnuts from ear to ear, you could do pretty much as you pleased. You wouldn’t have doughnuts at a formal dinner anyway.”

I have a vague recollection of block housewives in the days before women got into the workplace coming to my mother’s for coffee, and (if she served doughnuts, which was not always the case, as they were considered a rare and special treat) dunking their plain doughnuts. What’s more, coffee-flavored doughnut was delicious, we kids discovered when we would scavenge the remains after the ladies went away.

shop interior

The mix of interwar European custom and American Depression-era custom, right down to the mix of accents of the characters, was as interesting to me as the quick-paced, nimble story. Of course things work out, but the tension line is deliciously delayed until almost the last thirty seconds . . . and at the crucial moment, it’s the guy and not the gal who has to display his legs before she will say, “Yes.”

“The Custom of the Country,” the title of an Edith Wharton novel that she based on real people, is chosen deliberately for its mix of real experience and fiction, and curious blending of cultures, a subject that might be interesting to delve into further.



The Custom of the Country* — 15 Comments

  1. I laughed out loud at your remark from Emily Post about smearing the doughnuts 😀 And the remark about the forks is great too!

    On this coast we have the chain Dunkin Donuts, which preserves, in its name, the memory of dunking doughnuts.

    And that movie sounds **absolutely** like my cup of tea (or coffee w/doughnut)–I’ll have to find a way to see it.

  2. Dunking pastries into coffee or tea was common in many European countries, too, as well as somewhat controversial. Proust and his Madeleine is probably the best known example. Fried dough pastries like doughnuts are found all around the world and in pretty much all central European countries as well. So the doughnut may well have been a replacement for the Hungarian variant of fried dough pastry. As far as I know, they have something very much like Berliner and doughnuts are probably the closest equivalent to Berliners found in the US, though IMO doughnuts are closer to what we call Viktoria.

    Regarding the Hungarian setting, I remember that I refused to watch this movie when I was younger, because I assumed due to the setting that it was a German or Austrian movie and I didn’t want to watch German movies, because they were always so boring (and if I came across a German movie that was not boring, I immediately assumed it was American). The first time I watched it for real, knowing that it was a Hollywood movie, I was still baffled by the setting, because why would an American made film be set in Budapest, when New York was so much cooler?

    • Yeah–places are always more exotic when you don’t actually live there!

      I remember getting to Europe, to be utterly surprised when people wanted to hear about L.A. Who would want to hear about incredibly boring Los Angeles? I couldn’t believe it.

  3. Do you remember THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND? The brave mariners go to the south seas and have a series of hair-raising adventures with Captain Nemo. Finally a cataclysm destroys the Island. So they decide to retire somewhere all in a bunch. They select Iowa.

  4. The French dunk their baguettes into coffee at petite dejeuner. I don’t think they dunk anything else in anything else.

    • So dunking does sound like it’s a European custom, and still in force.

      I wonder if it’s not here so much because one, we’re on the run and seldom sit to drink coffee–it seems to be a car or commuter or office beverage–and second, because most of our doughnuts now are slathered with toppings, which would turn the coffee disgusting in short order.

  5. It seems to me that biscotti became popular in some cafes not least because they were better for dunking in coffee than the majority of modern iced doughnuts. (they were effectively designed for it.)

    I’ve seen some kinds of cookies (usually less sweet varieties) dunked, too, and tried some in my tea, as well. But never doughnuts, and I do like un-iced doughnuts. (Sour cream ones anyhow). OTOH, I don’t eat doughnuts often enough for it to have come up.