Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray Reviews: "Holiday Affair" (1949) and "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940)

"Holiday Affair" (1949) 

Fresh off starring in two 1948 westerns, the romantic "Rachel and the Stranger," and the noirish "Blood on the Moon," perhaps the last thing that Robert Mitchum wanted to do was make a Christmas romcom. But pushed into starring in "Holiday Affair" opposite Janet Leigh, after RKO head honcho Howard Hughes ordered him to make the picture following his arrest and jail sentence for marijuana possession one year earlier, Mitchum turned in a sly, shaggy dog performance so sexy that had Hughes thought it all the way through, he might've changed his mind about casting him altogether.

Fortunately for Mitchum fans, hindsight is 20/20. And although the film was a box office disaster when it was released – which might have had more to do with the confusingly noir-inspired ad campaign than anything else – "Holiday Affair" has since turned into a classic Christmas staple, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, which regularly airs director Don Hartman's film multiple times every winter. 

In the movie, Mitchum stars as Steve Mason, a veritable Kerouac-like beatnik ahead of his time. Selling toys in an upscale New York City department store to make enough money to pursue his passion for making and restoring boats on the coast, Steve loses his job after he fails to report Janet Leigh's comparison shopper Connie Ennis, a war widow and single mother of the sweetly mischievous young Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Falling for Connie, after Steve makes the grand gesture of buying her son the expensive toy train set he'd had his eye on, he complicates Connie's already slightly strained relationship with her loyal and kind no-sparks beau, Carl (played by Wendell Corey).

With screwball-worthy elements including a hilarious sequence that plays out in court and one of the steamiest holiday screen kisses in this or any year (in a moment that word is Janet Leigh didn't even know was coming), "Holiday Affair" is a winning, admittedly odd, yet adorable romantic comedy. Featuring a Lux Radio Theater production of the tale, which was based upon John D. Weaver's story "Christmas Gift" and adapted by screenwriter Isobel Lennart (who would write for Mitchum once again in both "The Sundowners" and "Two for the Seesaw"), this crisp transfer of the wintry black-and-white film has been newly released on Warner Archive Blu-ray.

"The Shop Around the Corner" (1940)

Though by now the plot device has been used so many times in romantic storytelling that it's spawned an entire subgenre of the trope titled "enemies to lovers" fiction, one of the most endearing early examples of this in screen romantic comedy can be found in director Ernst Lubitsch's bittersweet 1940 holiday classic "The Shop Around the Corner."

Based on the 1937 play "Parfumerie," by Hungarian writer Miklós László, which was adapted by longtime Lubitsch screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (in addition to an uncredited assist by Ben Hecht), the movie led to a number of high profile stage and screen remakes, including Broadway's "She Loves Me," as well as the films "In the Good Old Summertime," and "You've Got Mail" (which was also inspired by the classic enemies to lovers Jane Austen novel, "Pride and Prejudice").

Notable for its decision to leave politics out of the equation but pay tribute to its origins by setting the action in Hungary at a time when America was on the long on-ramp towards the second world war, "The Shop Around the Corner" takes place just before Christmastime in the small Budapest based Matuschek and Company leather goods shop. 

Getting to know a trio of its handful of workers intimately, the film primarily revolves around the store's kind boss in the midst of a personal crisis, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), as well as his loyal right-hand man Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), and the store's newest employee Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Pitted against one another in real life with their dueling sales practices and taste, the viewer soon discovers that Alfred and Klara are at the same time also falling in love on paper as anonymous correspondents, writing each other romantic love letters which are delivered to numbered post office boxes. 

With its trademark sophisticated Lubitsch wit, which boldly alternates from subtly sexy lines such as "I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there” and a startlingly sad subplot concerning Matuschek which takes the film into much darker territory, "The Shop Around the Corner" is that rarest of all holiday movies. Still incredibly modern in the way that it acknowledges both the romantic highs and lonely lows of the season, it's a refreshingly mature, grown-up work that makes today's overly beige, cookie-cutter, assembly line ready made-for-cable movies feel outdated and far too quaintly naive by comparison.

Though "The Shop Around the Corner" is a lovely romance all around, it's still undoubtedly Morgan's Matuschek that most tugs at the heartstrings both from an acting standpoint and when you watch the film in the devastation of 2020. Still, "Shop" generates most of its fire from the winning chemistry of Stewart and Sullavan as we find ourselves siding first with one lead followed by the other from one scene to the next. Enviably written and performed, despite how much I enjoyed both of its famous American remakes, this even-handed approach didn't translate nearly as well in "In the Good Old Summertime" or "You've Got Mail" since we're predominantly only drawn in by the female protagonists' plights throughout.

Beautifully shot by Lubitsch's frequent DP William H. Daniels, who's also well-known for being Greta Garbo's personal cinematographer, the film's lushly snowy black-and-white photography is given a glossy new shine in Warner Archive's new Blu-ray release of the film, which includes two radio broadcasts of "Shop" along with the bonus feature "A New Romance of Celluloid: The Miracle of Sound."

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