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The Shop Around the Corner
The classic romantic comedies of director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson contrast the thrill of instant gratification and the pleasure of the delayed payoff without demeaning either -- love of any kind is viewed as a funny sort of miracle. Both Lubitsch and Raphaelson agreed that The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a bittersweet valentine to a Budapest leather-goods shop, was their truest collaboration. The Stanford Theater presents it for a two-week run, Dec. 11-23, so that movie-lovers can see it both before and after Nora Ephron's remake, You've Got Mail (which opens Dec. 18). It's hard to fathom how a remake could be more pertinent than the original -- if any film deserves the adjective "timeless," it's The Shop Around the Corner. The movie depicts all the flirting and intrigue that can arise among men and women who hope to build a life around a steady job and family and in some ways make their co-workers part of the family.

The central love story between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan is virtually a love quadrangle played out by just two people. Stewart is the top employee at the shop; Sullavan is a sales girl hired over his objections. What we soon realize, and they don't, is that they're romantic pen-pals -- they've been courting each other anonymously, by mail. In their love letters, Stewart and Sullavan are passionately, whimsically high-minded; in their workaday lives they banter evasively, to deny the flirtatious tugs they feel toward each other. They must learn to believe in their own best self-images, to transfer their chivalric dreams to the shop. The movie builds to their amorous breakthrough in six sequences that rise and fall with the surprising weight of mini-lifetimes. Stewart and Sullavan -- and Lubitsch and Raphaelson -- never did better work. It's beautifully rhythmed to the beating human heart.

-- Michael Sragow

The Shop Around the Corner opens Saturday, Dec. 12, at 7:30 p.m. (with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 4 p.m.) at the Stanford Theater, 221 University (at Emerson), Palo Alto. Admission is $6; call (650) 324-3700.

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