Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 1940. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, based on the play Parfumerie (Illatszertár) by Miklos Laszlo. Cinematography by William H. Daniels. Produced by Ernst Lubitsch. Music by Werner R. Heymann. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Film Editing by Gene Ruggiero.
A clothing store in Budapest is the centre of plenty of drama in this cynical love story by Ernst Lubitsch. Margaret Sullavan gets a job working as a clerk in a business run by Frank Morgan and managed by James Stewart, with whom she clashes on a daily basis. Things don’t improve for Stewart when, instead of getting promoted by his boss as he expected, he is fired thanks to some intrigue involving the store’s resident ladies’ man (Joseph Schildkraut). Unfriendly and critical of each other, Sullavan and Stewart are also both exchanging love letters with a stranger they met through a newspaper ad, and are completely unaware that they are actually falling in epistolary love with each other while bickering in person. The film’s enticing plot would go on to inspire no end of remakes, including the frothy musical version in 1949, In The Good Old Summertime starring Judy Garland and set in a music store, a Broadway musical called She Loves Me and the Nora Ephron comedy You’ve Got Mail set among book store owners in late nineties Manhattan. This original Lubitsch version is, despite his usual habit of light, sexy comedies, the one that still has the darkest edge on both the romance and the business world that is likely retained from Miklos Laszlo’s original play Parfumerie: the protagonists are really quite nasty to each other until they begin to soften up towards the end, and the emphasis on mercenary interest and its intrusion on human interaction (the kind of anti-capitalist statement that only eastern Europeans can do so well) would be dropped in future versions (S.Z. Sakall in the Garland version as Morgan’s character becomes an ineffective sweetheart). Lubitsch declared this to be his favourite of all his films, one in which he keeps the glamorous cinematography to a minimum and presents his sophisticated attitude towards sex as criticism instead of indulgence, and yet still comes up with something entertaining and sweet.