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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.