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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 5

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

I guess it's just not Christmas without Jimmy Stewart. Over the iconic star's illustrious career, he managed to appear in three Christmas classics. “It's a Wonderful Life” is the big one, of course. I covered “Bell, Book and Candle” last year, which is a charming film though barely related to Christmas. Which brings me to “The Shop Around the Corner.” Though not as widely recognized as “It's a Wonderful Life,” it's nearly as beloved. It's been ranked by some among the best movies ever made. Despite this reputation, I've never seen it before. Looks like December is the right time of year to catch up with this one.

Set in Budapest, for reasons that don't affect the plot or characters in any real way, the film concerns the staff at Matuschek and Company, a small store specializing in leather goods. Alfred Kralik is the most successful salesman at the store, despite his cranky attitude. Klara Novak is a young woman that comes into the shop one day, looking for work. She's quickly hired. Klara and Alfred don't get along, his perfectionism bugging the nervous girl and vice-versa. Meanwhile, both of them have begun a relationship with a pen pal. The man Klara writes to is sensitive and intellectual. The woman Alfred communicates with is sweet and endearing. Neither are aware that the letter writers they're falling in love with are each other. As the Christmas season approaches, both begin to suspect the truth.

If “The Shop Around the Corner” didn't invent the romantic-comedy troupe of two people starting out disliking each other, and ending up loving each other, it certainly helped popularize it. Unlike most examples of this story type, there's few clues that the two characters like each other at all. In fact, Alfred and Klara's relationship is straight-up antagonistic at first. He nearly pushed her out of the store upon meeting. While hanging out around the stock room, he needlessly attacks her. This isn't the kind of cute sexual tension you usually see. Instead, Klara is an anxious girl and Alfred treats her like an asshole for no reason. This makes the eventual revelation that they've been writing to each other hard to read. Kind of difficult to root for these two to get together when they've been awful to each other for the whole movie. At least it builds to some cute scenes. Such as when Alfred tries to convince Klara to buy her suitor something else for Christmas. Or the final scene, when Klara discovers the truth.

To call “The Shop Around the Corner” a comedy is overstating it a bit. There's few yuks to be found here. Instead, the film is more concerned with capturing a slice-of-life feeling. We see the everyday struggles of the employees. Many of them have few funds, this job being their only source of in-come. One of the workers has a new baby while Klara was recently let go from her other job, needing the money badly. This leads to an underwhelming subplot, about the shop owner believing his wife is having an affair and nearly killing himself over it. (Which isn't, you know, hilarious.) However, it pays off on a touching conclusion. On Christmas day, the employees are allowed to go home early... Except for an employee who is new in the country and has no family near-by. That's when the shop owner invites him to his dinner instead. It's mildly touching.

“The Shop Around the Corner” probably works best as a vehicle for its stars. As Alfred, Jimmy Stewart has an interesting character arc. Beginning as a total grouch, we slowly see him soften. We eventually understand that his grumpiness arises out of how much he cares for his co-workers. Stewart is, naturally, highly charming and shows a quiet humor in the later scenes. As Klara, Margaret Sullivan projects a vulnerable humanity. This is most apparent in the scenes when her constitution shakes up a bit, by the various traumatic events around her. Ultimately, the two play off each other really well, even if their relationship seems a little too nasty as first.

I didn't like “The Shop Around the Corner” as much as its reputation as a classic implies. However, I will say this much: The film certainly makes the most of its Christmas-y atmosphere. There's some really nice snow and tree action in the last half. More of the film revolves around December traditions than I expected. As it is, the film mostly survives on the charms of its lead and a few touching moments. Otherwise, the script seems a bit uncertain about its goals. Then again, this is a classic and I'm just some random rube on the internet, so what do I know? [6/10]

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All (2008)

Boy, things sure have changed since 2008. Back then, I was a regular watcher of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Especially the latter, which had Colbert's amazingly charming screen presence and coated the awful news in a more appealing layer of absurdity. Now, Jon Stewart is gone from “The Daily Show” and I rarely bother with it. Colbert is hosting “The Late Show.” The country, meanwhile, has entered a new age of crypto-fascist Trumpian dumbness. Nearly a decade later, the satirical absurdity of Stephen Colbert, the character, is essentially indistinguishable from Fox News reality. But never mind that. In 2008, Colbert and Comedy Central put together a Christmas special. I haven't seen it in a few years and decided to re-watch it, wondering how the times have changed my perception of the show.

“A Colbert Christmas” is a parody of a genre of television that didn't even exist a decade ago. The special is an absurdist homage to the old-timey holiday special, the kind that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope rolled out annually for years and years. It's about Stephen Colbert: The Character, played by Stephen Colbert: The Real Person, being trapped in his winter cottage by a bear. There, he's met by festive visitors, who greet him with songs and jokes. The special is committed with this ridiculously artificial aesthetic. There's a number of dicey green screen effects. The plot is a loose excuse to string together a series of set pieces. The camera pans through the clearly fake cabin set. Colbert throws chestnuts at his fireplace, composed of a televised yule log. Each guests is greeted with Colbert explain who they are and applause. Colbert speaks directly to the audience throughout and it concludes with him receiving the DVD of the special you're watching.

It's an amusingly spot-on riff on a bygone type of entertainment. Honestly, the special's commitment to copying the look and feel of old Christmas specials is probably a determent to its enjoyability. It's likely a lot of the people who watched this in 2008 missed the joke. Luckily, Colbert throws other general bits of goofiness. Such as the reoccurring threat of a bear outside his cottage, building off a running gag from “The Colbert Report.” The special itself has a running gag about Colbert finding himself under the mistletoe with his various guests. These two gags meet at the end, when Colbert and the bear find themselves smooching under the mistletoe. There's frequent cuts to Elvis Costello at the studio, wearing ridiculous costumes and commenting on the appearances of goats. The jokes come consistently enough to entertain even if you have zero familiarity with vintage Christmas specials.

Just as with those old Bing specials, the script essentially functions as a linking device between musical numbers. In this regard, “A Colbert Christmas” is somewhat uneven. The songs are generally amusing. The opening number, in which Colbert hopes to coin a new Christmas standard and reap the residuals, got a laugh. A song where Jon Stewart attempts to interest Colbert in Hannukah is probably the comical highlight of the hour. John Legend's “Nutmeg,” a double entendre about everyone's favorite eggnog topping, is performed perfectly straight-faced. Some of the other songs receive fewer laughs. Willy Nelson's appearance, a marijuana influenced take on “The Little Drummer Boy,” is pretty but essentially a one joke bit stretched out too long. Feist's song, which mixes “Angels We Have Heard on High” with a call center, is similarly melodic if underdone. Toby Keith's country number, a satirical riff on the so-called War on Christmas, is pretty good but hampered by Keith's clear discomfort being on-screen.

Luckily, any bumps in the road are forgiven by the end. All the performers come together for a rendition of Costello's “What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” which was always a stealth Christmas song. The special pauses for a moment of sincerity at the end, where Colbert and Costello sing a number about the power of secular holiday traditions, beyond the people and cultures they're connected with. That one is a regular presence on my December playlist. Weirdly, Comedy Central hasn't made a habit of airing “A Colbert Christmas” annually. I don't know why as, aside from a joke about the Jonas Brothers, it's aged pretty well. The politics in this country might have gotten even more grotesque but tomfoolery of this degree is as evergreen as Christmas trees. [8/10]

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