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Gentle waves of laughter rolled across the main floor of the Michigan Theater, in response to the delicate wit of the 1940 romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner. Moviegoers watched James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan travel a rocky road to love on Sunday, December 18, 2011, in the latest movie in the Michigan’s Holiday Classic Film Series.

It was a privilege and a treat to see a big screen showing of this Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classic directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I watch this movie every Christmas season on TCM, and its intimacy plays very well on the small screen.

But a theater showing brings out other special qualities, in particular the charm of Margaret Sullavan’s performance. Once again, the big screen magnified the details in a performer’s face, adding nuance and depth to the actor’s impression on the audience.

Sullavan was not a classic beauty, but she had a friendly face and a winning smile, and she reacted to events with tenderness and wit and a wide range of facial expressions. The warm hoarseness in her voice added to the audience’s sympathy for her.

One of my favorite moments in all of film is her almost prayerful thankfulness when she sells the music box and earns a position with Matuschek and Company. And her skillful transitions between moods in the crucial final scene helped make this a memorable movie that stays with people long after the final credits.

Many times while watching the movie at the Michigan, I sat amazed that Sullavan’s tremendous performance did not even earn an Oscar nomination, much less an Oscar.

True, it was a competitive year, with nominations going to winner Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle), Katharine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story), Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), Bette Davis (The Letter), and Martha Scott (for another beautiful performance, in Our Town). The release of The Shop Around the Corner in early 1940 might have hurt Sullavan’s chances for an Oscar.

Besides a greater appreciation for Sullavan’s performance, there were other rewards from seeing this film in the Michigan Theater, where it first played in February 1940.

2/24/40 Ad from Ann Arbor News

That famed “Lubitsch touch” was in part a carefully crafted blend of humor, sophistication, and romance. As the film unfolded, the audience easily slipped into the exquisite rhythms of its sparkling script, tender music, and the many unique characterizations of its powerful supporting cast.

I sat in the very back row of the main floor of the Michigan, and the laughter from the various verbal and visual gags rippled towards me in a gentle crescendo that felt almost musical. It created a special texture for the experience, just right for a sunny Sunday afternoon a few days before Christmas.

The big screen also magnified that unique style of film processing used by M-G-M in the 1930s and 1940s, in which sets and other background items looked like they were carefully chiseled out of white sandstone.

The photography was by William Daniels, who was entrusted with many Greta Garbo films. Daniels angled the lighting up from the floor, creating facial shadows that added to the subtle drama of the film.

In Detroit, The Shop Around the Corner first appeared at the United Artists theater in January 1940.

Detroit Newspaper Ad from January 1940

This was a particularly good movie to see a week before Christmas. I’m sure many audience members could identify with the warm, sincere expressions of Christmas good wishes among the characters. These last few days before Christmas are always a good time to express depths of feeling that might not be possible at other times of the year.

And the large Christmas tree in the Grand Foyer of the Michigan added to the holiday feeling.

The Shop Around the Corner was part of a James Stewart Christmas movie weekend at the Detroit Movie Palaces. Large crowds turned out at the Redford Theatre on December 16 and 17 for It’s a Wonderful Life, which was also shown at the Michigan on December 11.

And area film fans will again enjoy the Lubitsch touch on February 25, 2012, when the DFT 101 series of the Detroit Film Theatre presents the 1932 romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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